Cognitive Enhancers Compared: Brain Supplements, Smart Drugs & Nootropics

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Cognitive enhancers range from naturally sourced supplements to totally synthetic drugs. Learn how to make the best choice to boost your mental performance.

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The use of cognitive enhancers is exploding.

Students, scientists, seniors, and entrepreneurs are among those using nootropics, so-called smart drugs, and brain supplements to gain a mental edge.

If you want to increase your productivity, alertness, and ability to learn and remember, you may be considering them too.

But your brain is your most valuable asset, so you need to know all the facts before using any cognitive enhancer.

While there is some overlap, all neuroenhancers can be divided into three groups based on how they are sourced and processed.

In this article, we look at some of the most popular and effective cognitive enhancers in each group and tell you what you need to know to make a smart consumer decision.

Cognitive Enhancement Supplements

There’s a wide array of natural supplements that are cognitive enhancers — herbs, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and even mushrooms!

There are numerous benefits to using brain supplements rather than cognitive-enhancing drugs.

Brain supplements have long histories of use and are generally very safe.

They can actually make you and your brain healthier.

They are readily found at any health food store or online vitamin shop.

The downside is that, compared to cognitive-enhancing drugs, the effects of brain supplements are more subtle and can take a while to kick in.

Here’s a list of top brain supplements and how they work:

1. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

Ginkgo is one of the most popular herbal remedies in the world.

It’s mostly sold for memory loss but is also beneficial for ADHD, anxiety, and depression. (1, 2)

It works by a variety of mechanisms.

It improves blood flow to the brain, is anti-inflammatory, and contains potent antioxidants which protect vulnerable brain cells from free radical damage. (3, 45)

2. Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)

Bacopa is used as an herbal brain tonic for improving memory, learning, and concentration.

Its recorded use goes back at least 3,000 years.

Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that regulate every aspect of your life, including your mood and ability to focus, concentrate, learn, and remember.

Bacopa is a master neurotransmitter regulator that dials production of these brain chemicals up or down as needed. (6)

In one study, bacopa was tested against both the herbal supplement ginseng and the popular smart drug Modafinil. (7)

Bacopa exhibited superior cognitive benefits to both.

3. American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

Ginseng is a quintessential traditional Chinese herb that’s been called the “elixir of life.”

All species of ginseng contains ginsenosides, a unique set of compounds which are antioxidant, neuroprotective, and may stimulate the release of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter associated with learning and memory. (8)

But unexpectedly, American ginseng is now considered superior to Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng).

American ginseng especially excels as a cognitive enhancer. (9)

Research shows it gets to work quickly to improve short-term memory and reaction times within a few hours after taking. (10)

4. Lion’s Mane Mushroom (Hericium erinaceus)

Lion’s mane mushroom has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years.

It is said to give you “nerves of steel and the memory of a lion.

It contains two unique groups of compounds that heal and protect existing nerve cells, and stimulate the growth of new ones. (11)

It also contains amycenone, a potent anti-inflammatory compound that may be responsible for this mushroom’s antidepressant properties. (12)

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5. Amino Acid Cognitive Enhancers

Not all natural cognitive enhancers are based on plants.

Some are amino acids that are building blocks of important neurotransmitters.

Tyrosine

Tyrosine is needed for the formation of dopamine (the “motivation molecule”) and norepinephrine, a dual-purpose compound that acts as both a stress hormone and a neurotransmitter. (13)

Tryptophan

Tryptophan is the precursor of serotonin (the “happiness brain chemical”) and the sleep hormone melatonin. (14)

Taurine

Taurine behaves much like the calming neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and, once in the brain, activates GABA receptors. (15)

L-Theanine

L-theanine is one of the most noteworthy natural brain enhancers around.

It’s found almost exclusively in tea and increases levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. (16)

It also alters brainwave patterns to help the brain attain an optimal state of relaxed concentration. (1718)

6. Essential Brain Nutrients

Some cognitive enhancers are essential brain nutrients like vitamin B12, vitamin D, magnesium, and omega-3 essential fatty acids.

Note that these won’t power up your brain if you already get enough of them — but few of us do.

Surprisingly, deficiencies of these essential brain nutrients are rampant even in industrialized countries. (19202122)

If you are low in one or more of these essential nutrients, overcoming a deficiency can have a tremendous impact on your brain function, mental health, and general well-being.

So while taking vitamins or fish oil is definitely not as sexy as taking the latest smart drug, sometimes these basic nutrients can be the best brain supplements you can take.

Cognitive-Enhancing “Smart” Drugs

Cognitive-enhancing drugs, often referred to as smart drugs or study drugs, are manufactured pharmaceuticals taken to improve memory, learning, focus, attention, and other mental abilities.

They are commonly used by people who feel a strong need for a cognitive edge.

These include college students, Silicon Valley coders, Wall Street traders, entrepreneurs, biohackers, scientists, and military personnel. (232425, 26)

Many of these drugs were created to treat non-cognitive disorders, but have been appropriated for off-label use — an unapproved use of an approved drug.

These drugs are supposedly available by prescription only, but it’s not hard to get them without one.

Popular Cognitive-Enhancing Drugs

These are currently some of the most popular cognitive-enhancing drugs:

Adderall and Ritalin

Adderall and Ritalin are prescription stimulants for treating ADHD that are used off-label for increasing focus and energy.

They work by increasing levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine or norepinephrine. (27)

Modafinil

Modafinil (brand name Provigil) is a trendy study drug that was originally created to treat sleep disorders.

Its only medically approved uses are for narcolepsy, shift work sleep disorder, and obstructive sleep apnea. (28)

The legal status of modafinil varies by country.

In the US, it is technically available by prescription only, but it’s easily found online. (29)

Piracetam

Piracetam was developed by the scientist who coined the term nootropics and it is often considered the first nootropic.

It is a synthetic derivative of the naturally occurring neurotransmitter GABA. (30)

It belongs to a group of cognitive enhancers called racetams.

Other members of the racetam group include aniracetam, oxiracetam, and Noopept.

It’s not fully understood how racetams work.

Prevailing theories speculate that racetams work by improving the function of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, enhancing brain cell membrane fluidity, or protecting the brain from oxidative stress. (31, 32, 33)

Piracetam has been shown to improve memory in seniors experiencing age-related mental decline, but there’s little evidence that it offers any noticeable cognitive benefits in healthy adults. (34, 35, 36)

The Downside of Cognitive-Enhancing Drugs

Unlike cognitive-enhancing supplements which make your brain healthier, there is no such pretense when it comes to cognitive-enhancing drugs.

These drugs are designed to give you a short-term increase in energy, memory, learning ability, focus, and attention with little concern about long-term use or side effects.

Here are some examples of what can go wrong when these drugs are taken long term.

Adderall and Ritalin are amphetamines which undoubtedly make you feel alert and mentally clear initially.

But long-term use leads to tolerance, so you need to use more to get the same results.

These drugs are highly addictive and are on the list of Schedule II controlled substances, a category that includes opium and cocaine.

Side effects of long-term amphetamine use can be extremely serious — mental health problems, irregular heartbeat, physical collapse, and even death. (37, 38, 39, 40)

Modafinil is considered relatively safe. (41)

And that’s a good thing since this drug gets passed around on college campuses where as many as one in five college students takes it as a study drug. (42)

Known short-term side effects include insomnia, headache, nausea, anxiety, nervousness, hypertension, decreased appetite, and weight loss. (43, 44)

Little is known about the long-term use of modafinil except that it significantly upsets sleep cycles creating similar brainwave patterns during sleep as those of cocaine users. (45)

Be aware that modafinil has a quasi-legal status, at least here in the US.

Unless it’s been prescribed by your doctor, you’ll have to get it from a friend, dealer, or take your chances ordering it online.

Since online sales are unregulated, there’s no assurance of the product’s quality or safety, or that what you buy is even modafinil.

Lastly, there’s evidence that brain-enhancing drugs may not work at all.

Studies have repeatedly shown that smart drugs don’t make you smarter or more productive.

Just as drinking alcohol makes you feel more funny and attractive, these drugs can make you think you’re performing better than you are. (46)

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What Are Nootropics?

It’s generally clear which cognitive enhancers are drugs and which are supplements.

But when it comes to categorizing which are nootropics, it gets rather murky.

Nootropic is not a regulated term and what exactly constitutes a nootropic is subjective.

Almost any substance used to boost cognitive function is now being called a nootropic, but this is not the original intention of the term.

There are well over 100 substances that have made it on to some nootropics list.

So, nootropics have come to encompass everything from all-natural supplements to all-synthetic cognitive-enhancing drugs, to everything in between.

The Original Nootropics Definition

According to its original definition, nootropics are cognitive enhancers that should improve the health of your brain and do no harm. (47)

The term was coined by Corneliu Giurgea, a Romanian psychologist and chemist who created the popular cognitive enhancer piracetam.

He described a nootropic (which means “turn the mind” in Greek) as any substance that enhances learning and memory, protects the brain, and is very safe with few side effects.

Therefore, according to Giurgea, any brain-enhancing drug, supplement, nutraceutical, or functional food qualified as a nootropic provided it was safe and actually supported brain health.

He also stipulated that a nootropic should not be psychoactive or mood-altering, and should not make you feel wired, high, or sedated. (48)

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Are All Today’s Nootropics Safe?

According to the original definition, all nootropics should be safe.

But are they?

The definition of nootropics has expanded to mean any substance — natural, synthetic, or a mix — that has the potential to improve mental functions such as memory, intelligence, motivation, attention, and concentration.

The cognitive-enhancing supplements you read about at the beginning of this article — vitamins, herbs, and amino acids — fit the original criteria of nootropics.

They improve mental functions, support brain health, and do no harm.

But this is rarely what is now meant by the term nootropics.

Given the desire of many people to improve their mental performance and the way these substances are marketed, their risks and side effects have become relatively unimportant.

Performance is paramount.

Now let’s take a look at examples of the two main kinds of nootropics, natural-based supplements and synthetic drugs.

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Supplements That Qualify as True Nootropics

Nootropic supplements contain compounds that begin in nature.

In processing, parts of the natural source may be extracted or synthetically enhanced in order to be effective.

A good example of this is magnesium l-threonate.

Magnesium plays a critical role in numerous brain-related and neurological conditions. (4950, 51)

Unfortunately, little of the magnesium found in typical supplements can make its way into the brain, limiting its therapeutic usefulness. (52)

But when magnesium is chelated to threonate, a vitamin C metabolite, a new form of magnesium is created that easily crosses into the brain. (5354)

Plant-Based Nootropic Supplements

Many nootropic supplements are based on naturally occurring compounds found in plants.

Curcumin

Curcumin is extracted from the Indian spice turmeric (Curcuma longa).

It’s one of the best brain boosters around.

It’s as effective at increasing blood flow to the brain as physical exercise. (55, 56)

Curcumin raises levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein that stimulates the creation of new brain cells. (57)

Curcumin increases neuroplasticity, your brain’s ability to change and grow throughout your lifetime. (58)

Impressively, one study found that just a single dose of curcumin resulted in a noticeable improvement in attention and working memory in healthy seniors. (59)

Always look for a curcumin supplement that contains piperine, phosphatidylserine, or the use of nanoparticles.

These measures greatly increase curcumin’s bioavailability, your body’s ability to utilize it.

Huperzine A

Huperzine A is a compound extracted from Chinese club moss (Huperzia serrata).

It works by increasing acetylcholine and stimulating the formation of new brain cells. (60)

Studies have found that huperzine A enhances memory and learning in people in all stages of life, from middle school students to seniors with Alzheimer’s. (61, 62)

Vinpocetine

Vinpocetine is a neuroenhancer that straddles the line between nootropic supplement and drug.

It’s synthesized from vincamine, a compound found in periwinkle (Vinca minor). (63)

Vinpocetine enhances brain function by a variety of mechanisms.

It increases blood flow to the brain, reduces brain inflammation, stimulates the creation of new brain cells, and balances neurotransmitter levels. (6465, 66, 67)

In some parts of the world, vinpocetine is available as a prescription drug. (68)

Here in the US, it’s available as a supplement, but that may change. (69)

The FDA has initiated proceedings to take vinpocetine off the shelves because they believe it should be classified as a drug and not a supplement.

You can still buy it from some vendors such as Vitacost and iHerb, but it’s no longer sold on Amazon.

Choline-Based Nootropic Supplements

Choline is an essential nutrient for brain development, healthy brain cells, and neurotransmitter formation.

It is a precursor of acetylcholine. (70)

But unfortunately, choline (like magnesium) does not effectively enter the brain.

Choline-based nootropic supplements offer a workaround for this dilemma.

Alpha-GPC

Alpha-GPC (alpha-glycerophosphocholine) is a synthetic form of choline that can enter the brain as it’s needed to create the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and GABA. (71)

It’s sold as a memory supplement throughout much of the world, but in Europe it’s also used as a prescription medication for Alzheimer’s. (72)

Citicoline

Another cholinergic nootropic is citicoline.

Upon ingestion, it converts to choline and uridine (also sold on its own as a nootropic).

Citicoline naturally occurs as a building block of healthy brain cell membranes. (73)

It raises levels of several important neurotransmitters including acetylcholine and dopamine. (74)

Citicoline increases blood flow to the brain and mental energy by increasing the activity of brain cell mitochondria, powerhouses of the cell.

Nootropic Drugs

This type of nootropics is comprised of synthetic drugs — no claims are made about being nature-based.

You won’t find them at your health food store, online vitamin shop, or even Amazon.

They are sold only through websites that specialize in nootropics.

While these sites all carry a slightly different inventory, here are some of the products you’re likely to find.

Racetams

Racetams are the quintessential nootropic drugs.

This group includes piracetam, the original nootropic.

Other racetams you’ll find for sale include aniracetam, oxiracetam, pramiracetam, phenylpiracetam, and Noopept.

All bring slightly different benefits, and side effects, to the table.

Phenibut

Phenibut is a GABA derivative developed in the Soviet Union that’s beneficial for stress and anxiety.

But be careful with this one — like anti-anxiety medications, it can be addictive. (75)

Adrafinil

Adrafinil provides a workaround for those that want the power of modafinil without the hassle of obtaining it.

Once ingested, it gets metabolized into modafinil.

Long-term supplementation of adrafinil is not advised, since its safety for the liver is unknown. (76)

Adrafinil, like modafinil, is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency as a nonspecific stimulant compound.

The Legality of Buying Nootropics Online

When purchasing nootropic drugs, be aware that their legality varies by country.

If you are buying from a website that operates outside of your country of residence, do your homework on their international shipping policies.

Otherwise your order may be confiscated or held up by customs.

Why the Best All-Around Cognitive Enhancers Are Not Pills

Just as beauty does not come from a jar, lasting intelligence, success, and creativity do not come from a pill.

While cognitive enhancers can give your brain a boost, no drug or supplement will ever take the place of living a brain-healthy lifestyle.

Some of the most brilliant people in history attribute their success to positive lifestyle habits like: (7778, 7980, 81)

  • meditation (Steve Jobs)
  • physical exercise (Richard Branson)
  • power naps (Thomas Edison)
  • playing music (Albert Einstein)
  • lifelong pursuit of learning (Elon Musk)

You may already be among the billions of people who regularly use the most popular cognitive enhancer on the planet, caffeine.

And, of course, every bite of food you take either nourishes your brain — or stresses it further.

You’ll find dozens of articles on Be Brain Fit that show you proven ways to achieve peak mental performance naturally.

Cognitive Enhancers Compared: Take the Next Step

There are several types of cognitive enhancers to choose from — supplements, drugs, and nootropics.

Brain supplements have proven the test of time and are generally very safe and easy to find.

Cognitive-enhancing drugs can have some significant side effects, usually are obtained quasi-legally, and are generally unsuitable for long-term use.

Nootropics cover a wide range of brain enhancers.

True nootropics should do no harm and leave your brain healthier than it was before, but that is not always the case with today’s wide definition of nootropic.

Before taking any cognitive enhancer, do your due diligence.

Understand both what it can do for you as well as what it can do to you.

Your brain is your most valuable asset, so don’t put it at risk.

Be clear on what you are taking and why.

READ NEXT: Do Brain-Enhancing Drugs Work? Know the Risks, Benefits