Cognitive Enhancers Compared

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Last updated December 11, 2023.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

Cognitive enhancers go by the terms brain supplements, smart drugs, and nootropics and can be naturally sourced or synthetic. Learn how to choose well.

The use of cognitive enhancers has been booming for years now.

Students, scientists, seniors, and entrepreneurs are among those using them 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 it’s important to know all the facts before using any cognitive enhancer, since not all of them are safe, legal, or work as intended.

While there is some category overlap, all neuroenhancers can be divided into three groups based on how they are sourced and processed —  brain supplements, nootropics, and smart drugs.

In this article, we look at some of the most popular cognitive enhancers and tell you what you need to know to make a smart decision about using them.

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 quality 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 attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression

Ginkgo works by a variety of mechanisms.

It improves blood flow to the brain, reduces brain inflammation, and contains potent antioxidants that protect vulnerable brain cells from free radical damage. 


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2. Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)

Bacopa is a traditional 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 our lives, including our mood and ability to focus, concentrate, learn, and remember.

Bacopa is a master neurotransmitter regulator that adjusts the production of these brain chemicals up or down as needed. 

In one study, bacopa was tested against both the herbal supplement ginseng and the popular smart drug modafinil.

Bacopa exhibited superior cognitive benefits to both.

3. American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

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

All species of ginseng contain ginsenosides, a unique set of compounds that have antioxidant and neuroprotective properties and may stimulate the release of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter associated with learning and memory. 

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

American ginseng, even more than Asian ginseng, excels as a cognitive enhancer

Research shows that it gets to work quickly to improve short-term memory and reaction times within a few hours of ingestion. 

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 impart “nerves of steel and the memory of a lion.

Lion’s mane contains two unique groups of compounds, hericenones and erinacines, that heal and protect existing nerve cells and stimulate the growth of new ones. 

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It also contains amycenone, a potent anti-inflammatory compound that is believed to be responsible for lion’s mane’s antidepressant properties

5. Amino Acid Cognitive Enhancers

Not all natural cognitive enhancers are sourced from plants.

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


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. 


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


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


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

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

L-theanine also alters brainwave patterns to help attain an optimal state of relaxed concentration. 

6. Essential Brain Nutrients

Some cognitive enhancers are essential brain nutrients, including 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 wealthier countries. 


It’s almost impossible to live a lifestyle that provides all the nutrients needed for good brain health and performance. The reason? All of us confront multiple nutrient thieves — stress, poor diet, insomnia, pharmaceuticals, pollution, and more — that steal nutrients that the brain needs to thrive.

Taking quality nutritional supplements:
  • Provides the building blocks to create new brain cells and brain chemicals
  • Helps increase resilience to stress to avoid mental burnout
  • Supplies the brain with the fuel it needs for mental energy

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If you are deficient in one or more of these essential nutrients, overcoming that deficiency can positively impact brain function, mental health, and general well-being.

So, while taking vitamins or fish oil is definitely not as trendy as taking the latest smart drug, these basic nutrients are sometimes the best brain supplements to 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 functions.

They are commonly used by people who feel a strong need for a cognitive edge, such as college students, Silicon Valley coders, Wall Street traders, entrepreneurs, biohackers, scientists, and military personnel

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

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

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 to increase focus and energy.

They work by raising brain levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine or norepinephrine. 


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

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

The legal status of modafinil varies by country.

In the US, modafinil is legally available by prescription only, but it can be found online. 


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

" According to its original definition, a nootropic is a cognitive enhancer that should improve the health of the brain and do no harm. 

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

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

Piracetam has been shown to improve memory in seniors experiencing dementia or other cognitive impairments. 

There’s also evidence that it can help with some central nervous system disorders, such as epilepsy and stroke.

But there’s little evidence that it offers any noticeable cognitive benefits in healthy young adults

The Downside of Cognitive-Enhancing Drugs

Unlike cognitive-enhancing supplements which make the 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 that 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

Modafinil is considered relatively safe

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

Known short-term side effects of modafinil include insomnia, headache, nausea, anxiety, nervousness, hypertension, decreased appetite, and weight loss. 

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. 

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

Unless it’s been prescribed by your doctor, you’ll have to get modafinil from a friend or 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.

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Studies have repeatedly shown that smart drugs don’t make people 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. 

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.

Ther term nootropic is not regulated 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 intent of the term.

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

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

The Original Nootropics Definition

According to its original definition, a nootropic is a cognitive enhancer that should improve the health of the brain and do no harm

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 that it was safe and promoted 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. 

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Are All Today’s Nootropics Safe?

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

But are they?

Today the definition of nootropics has expanded to mean any substance, whether natural, synthetic, or a mix of the two, 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 nootropic.

To many, the desire to improve mental performance at any cost is paramount, and worry about risk and side effects has become relatively unimportant. 

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

Nootropic Supplements

Nootropic supplements contain compounds that begin in nature.

In processing, parts of the natural source may be extracted or synthetically enhanced to make the resulting product more effective.

A good example of this is magnesium l-threonate.

Magnesium plays a critical role in numerous brain-related and neurological conditions. 

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

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

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


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

It’s one of the best brain boosters available.

Curcumin is as effective at increasing blood flow to the brain as physical exercise. 

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

Curcumin also increases neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change and grow throughout its lifetime.

One study found that just a single dose of curcumin resulted in a noticeable improvement in attention and working memory in healthy seniors. 

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

Studies have found that huperzine A enhances memory and learning in people of almost all ages, from middle school students to seniors with Alzheimer’s


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

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

Vinpocetine enhances brain function by a variety of mechanisms.

It increases cerebral blood flow, reduces brain inflammation, and balances neurotransmitter levels

In some countries, vinpocetine is available as a prescription drug

In the US, it’s available as a supplement, but that could change. 

A few years ago, it was banned in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

At that time, the US Food & Drug Administration also initiated proceedings to take vinpocetine off store shelves because they believed it should be classified as a drug rather than a supplement.

However, according to the FDA’s latest update, that motion has stalled. 

For now, you can still buy vinpocetine from most supplement vendors.

Choline-Based Nootropic Supplements

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

It is a precursor of acetylcholine

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

The following choline-based nootropic supplements offer a workaround for this dilemma.


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

It’s sold as a memory supplement throughout much of the world, but, in some European countries, it’s also used as a prescription medication for Alzheimer’s.


Another cholinergic nootropic is citicoline.

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

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

It raises levels of several important neurotransmitters, including acetylcholine and dopamine

Citicoline increases blood flow to the brain and mental energy by increasing the activity of brain cell mitochondria, energy production centers found in nearly all human cells.

Nootropic Drugs

Nootropic drugs are man-made and manufacturers make no claims that they are nature-based.

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

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

But be careful with this one, it can be addictive


Adrafinil provides an alternative for those who want the power of modafinil without the hassle of obtaining it since it’s not hard to buy it online.

Once ingested, it gets metabolized into modafinil.

Long-term use is not advised, since there’s some concern about its safety for the liver. 

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 the 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 such as: 

You may already be among the billions of people who regularly use the most popular cognitive enhancer in the world, 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.

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