Nootropics are compounds that boost your mental performance. Also called brain boosters, smart drugs or cognitive enhancers, the nootropics category can include natural nutrients (vitamins, herbs, minerals), synthetic nutrients produced in a lab, or pharmaceutical drugs. This glossary gives brief definitions of some of the concepts related to nootropic supplements and overall brain health.
- Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP)
- Age-Associated Memory Impairment
- Age-Related Cognitive Decline
- Amyloid Plaques & Neurofibrillary Tangles
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
- Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Blood-brain Barrier
- Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
- Brain Waves
- Catecholamine Hypothesis
- Central Nervous System
- Cerebral Circulation
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Cognitive flexibility
- Cyclic Adenosine Monophosphate (cAMP)
- Executive Functions
- Long-term Memory
- Mild Cognitive Impairment
- Myelin Sheaths
- Nerve Growth Factor
- Oxidative Stress
- Short-term Memory
- Vascular Dementia
- Wakeful Relaxation
- White Matter
- Working Memory
This neurotransmitter is vital in the roles of learning, memory and mood. When new information is absorbed by the brain, acetylcholine helps to encode it and store it in the memory. Decreased acetylcholine function impairs a person’s ability to encode new memories, but it does not impair the ability to call upon memories that have already been encoded. This is one of the reasons why acetylcholine is crucial to the learning process and age-related cognitive performance. Acetylcholine is synthesized from choline and broken down by an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase. Drugs and nootropics that block acetylcholinesterase seem to help promote memory performance in cases of brain degeneration.
This class of herbs helps body to “adapt” to stressors, both physical and mental. In the context of nootropics, adaptogens can help strengthen mental fortitude, helping to maintain energized, active thinking against the brain-dulling effects of prolonged stress. Adaptogens are also valued for their ability to boost endurance and physical performance. This combined mind-body optimization effect is why edge-driven athletes sometimes use adaptogen herbs like Rhodiola and Ashwagandha.
Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP)
Otherwise known as ATP, this compound stores energy in all the body’s cells, and releases energy as needed — acting as a universal “power currency” for all biological activity. ATP is synthesized in cells’ mitochondria. Given the energy-intensive needs of the brain, ATP is crucial for peak mental performance. As humans age, blood flow to the brain decreases and ATP production declines. At a certain point, brain cells die without adequate ATP supply. Some nootropics may help to energize the brain by supporting healthy ATP production.
Also known as Epinephrine, this is another Catecholamine vital for many roles within the brain. Although the other Catecholamines are present in larger quantities in the brain, Adrenaline is the most crucial for stress responses. More on Adrenaline
Age-Associated Memory Impairment
Also known as AAMI, Age-Associated Memory Impairment is a mild decline in cognitive performance that occurs in adults over age 50. AAMI may be diagnosed by self-reported memory problems and sub-standard memory test performance, when other causes of memory decline (such as head injuries and vascular problems) have been ruled out. AAMI may be an early indicator of brain degeneration, including dementia. Amyloid Plaques, Neurofibrillary Tangles, free radical damage to brain cells, and a decline in the production of neurotransmitters are all causes of AAMI.
Also called ARCD, it widely believed to be a natural consequence of aging that will eventually manifest as brain fog, memory problems, verbal communication decline and a general slowdown in cognitive ability.
Two almond-shaped regions of the brain that play a key role in emotional processing. For example, the amygdalae help the brain process the feeling of fear and to recognize it in other people.
Amyloid Plaques & Neurofibrillary Tangles
These anomalies within the brain prevent neurons from operating correctly, and contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other forms of brain degeneration. Amyloid Plaques are accumulations of protein fragment that have amassed in the space between neurons, preventing proper brain function. Microtubules are necessary for interaction with different brain cells. In some cases these Microtubules collapse because of abnormal, twisted fibers of the proteins that comprise them — which are known as Neurofibrillary Tangles.
A compound or drug that reduces anxiety.
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
Technically ADD is a sub-type of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, but instead of using its technical term of “ADHD – Inattentive Type,” most people today simply call it ADD. This disorder is characterized by the inability to complete tasks and process information at fast rates, presence of impulsivity, inattention, forgetfulness, distraction and more. In daily life, it may manifest as inability to organize, follow instructions, or finish tasks started. ADD is usually the result of abnormal function of the catecholamine neurotransmitters in the brain, especially dopamine and norepinephrine.
Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Although this is actually a broader term that refers to all subtypes of ADHD, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder usually refers to the “Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive type.” This disorder is characterized by the inability to sit still and extreme levels of energy. As with ADD, ADHD is thought to be the result of poor neurotransmitter function; as a result, nootropics that influence brain chemical status have been suggested to help. One small study found the nootropic nutrient phosphatidylserine appeared to help ease some symptoms of ADHD.
This semi-permeable barrier prevents certain materials to pass through into the brain from other parts of the body, while allowing other materials to cross into the brain. The Blood-brain Barrier’s main function is to protect the brain from things that may injure it, and to regulate a stable environment within the brain. Only a select few nutrients are capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier. According to some experts, only nutrients that can cross the blood-brain barrier should be considered “nootropic” by definition.
Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
Otherwise known as BDNF, this “brain fertilizer” protein, part of the neurotrophin family of brain-supportive proteins, aids in the maintenance, growth, survival and overall health of neurons. It acts primarily on the spaces between these cells, also known as synapses. Being able to change and adapt based on new experiences is regulated by the synapses through something called “Synaptic Plasticity,” and BDNF helps stimulate this. The blueberry-derived antioxidant nootropic Pterostilbene appears to exert beneficial activity on brain BDNF levels.
These occur when neurons act as one and collectively send electrical impulses between each other. There are many different types of brain waves, each with different frequencies, and they all depend on what an individual is doing or feeling. The two main brainwave types are Delta and Gamma. Delta waves are common when people are doing everyday, functional tasks, whereas Gamma waves are more common with more complex thoughts. Alpha waves are linked with relaxed, alert states, good for creativity & productivity. Brainwaves are measured by electroencephalogram (EEG) testing, a valuable diagnostic tool in cases of brain injury, brain degeneration, seizures and more. The nootropics L-Theanine and Oat straw are noted for their ability to raise alpha brain waves and promote “wakeful relaxation.”
There are three Catecholamines: Dopamine, Noradrenaline and Norepinephrine (Adrenaline). They are all classified as Biogenic Amine Neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters allow the neurons to more easily send impulses to each other. As people age, neurotransmitter activity declines. Because of this, Catecholamines are extremely important in mental health. All catecholamines are synthesized from the amino acid nootropic compound Tyrosine. Catecholamine levels are notably unbalanced in cases of ADD/ADHD.
According to this scientific theory, ADD and ADHD may be caused by imbalances of the catecholamine neurotransmitters. In particular, norepinephrine imbalance may fail to activate the brain region that regulates attention to external stimuli; dopamine imbalance may negatively affect the anterior brain’s executive attention ability; and the peripheral endocrine catecholamine system is what’s acted upon by effective ADD/ADHD drugs. Collective malfunctioning of these catecholamine neurotransmitters has been linked to ADHD (in theory, only) in some research.
Central Nervous System
This is the entire accumulation of nerves throughout the body, numbering in the hundreds of billions. The nervous system utilizes neurons to send and receive information that ultimately enables all thought and all movement in our lives. Cerebrospinal fluid, which covers both the brain and the spinal cord, helps to protect the nervous system.
This phrase refers to the supply of blood the brain requires and its path through various veins, arteries and capillaries. One of its main functions is to supply the brain with oxygen via the bloodstream, which is then “burned” for brain energy. A fairly sensitive system, it requires a balance in Cerebral Blood Flow (CBF). Too much blood flow to the brain will result in swelling of cerebral matter, whereas not enough blood flow will result in the death of brain tissue. Insufficient bloodflow to the brain is also associated with age-related cognitive decline known as Vascular Dementia. One of the more evidence-backed roles of nootropic nutrients is the optimization of cerebral circulation, with vinpocetine, citicoline and ginkgo biloba showing the greatest promise for boosting blood flow.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
This complicated disorder is very hard to diagnose and there is no known cause, although there are many interesting theories. It is characterized by extreme fatigue or tiredness, loss of memory or concentration, headaches and reduced sleep quality. “Brain fog” is a term commonly used to describe the low cognitive performance often experienced in CFS. The energizing nootropic NADH has been suggested in human clinical research to help with CFS brain fog symptoms.
The ability to switch from thinking about one concept to another and to think about multiple concepts simultaneously. Cognitive flexibility is one component of executive function.
This brain activity is characterized by the ability to direct thoughts in a desired path regardless of distractions or interference. The degree to which people can successfully concentrate is governed by their enthusiasm, skill, and commitment towards the task at hand. A person’s concentration can also be altered by their emotional state, psychological profile, and the nature of activity around them.
Cyclic Adenosine Monophosphate (cAMP)
Also known as cAMP, cyclic adenosine monophosphate is a secondary messenger molecule derived from ATP that orchestrates several key brain cell functions, including the ability to send electrical impulses from neuron to neuron. cAMP also appears to play a role in memory formation and storage, while supporting brain cell energy metabolism. It all adds up to targeted support for the brain’s prefrontal cortex activity. In theory, boosting brain cAMP levels may help with memory, attention disorders and age-related cognitive decline.
Dementia is not a single condition, but a catchall phrase that encompasses many symptoms of cognitive decline associated with underlying disease. Contrary to popular belief, dementia is not a normal part of aging. Dementia’s causes are related to brain degeneration that is linked to damaged and misfiring brain cells. Impaired cell-to-cell communication results in dementia symptoms like memory loss, inattention, language difficulties and mood disorders. Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia are two common manifestations of the condition.
One of three Catecholamines, this neurotransmitter is responsible for reward-motivated behavior, like eating and sex. It also aids in the function of memory, learning, cognition, attention and sleep. In the physical self, dopamine is crucial for coordinating body movements. Insufficient or unbalanced Dopamine has been linked to Attention Deficit Disorder and social anxiety, as well as to mind-body movement disorders like Parkinson’s.
Before information can be stored as memories, it must first be encoded. Encoding is the conversion of information into something the brain can handle. There are three types of encoding, Acoustic, Visual and Semantic. Visual encoding is when a person uses mental images to remember something, and Acoustic encoding is when people use a sound to remember information. Semantic encoding, which is remembering the actual meaning or significance of information, is the most important part of long term memory encoding.
Cognitive processes and skills that help you plan and complete tasks. Examples of executive functions include working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attentional control.
The act of directing total attentional resources towards a specific task is known as focus. Successful mental focusing is achieved by a maintaining a singular presence of mind when completing a task. An example of a person failing to focus would be a person who is attempting to multi-task. Essentially focus is simply the act of undergoing one task, only.
This chemical is a type of Biogenic Amine Neurotransmitter that is responsible for behaviors related to wakefulness and arousal. Histamine is also an important part of motivation and reward-oriented behavior. Furthermore, Histamine has been shown to be essential in the acquisition and storage of long and short term memories. Histamine deficiencies have been linked with neurological disorders.
This phrase describes the type of memory associated with an event or information that was absorbed by the mind long ago. Although these memories are often pieced together by the brain with inaccurate or imagined information, healthy individuals have at their disposal an impressive information storage system from which to draw upon, although it can be further augmented by nootropics, especially Phosphatidylserine.
Mild Cognitive Impairment
Otherwise known as MCI, this is characterized by cognitive impairment beyond the expected decline caused by the ageing process. It usually progresses into Dementia. People with MCI begin to notice difficulties with memory function and cognition increasing at a rapid rate. Causes of MCI include Amyloid Plaques & Neurofibrillary Tangles, poor blood flow to the brain, and strokes, although there is no single known cause and it might be a combination of factors.
Myelin is a fatty substance that enrobes neurons’ axons (the main body part of nerves) and gives the brain’s “white matter” its white color. Myelin functions by insulating and protecting neurons; it also notably coordinates and accelerates healthy nerve-to-nerve electrical impulse signaling. Insufficient or damaged myelin is linked to neurological problems, including Multiple Sclerosis. Vitamin B12 is critical for healthy myelin sheath formation; deficiency of the vitamin can cause demyelination of nerves. Lion’s Mane and Vitamin B6 (as P-5-P) are also suggested to support healthy myelination of neurons.
Nerve Growth Factor
This substance is crucial to the formation, development and survival of nerve cells, including brain cells. In addition to serving as a material for nerve cell repair, NGF has also been suggested to play a role in initiating repair, via cell-to-cell signaling activity. NGF is believed to have neuroprotective properties, and has been suggested to hold therapeutic potential for some neurological problems. Lion’s Mane Mushroom has emerged as a leading nootropic for optimizing NGF.
This is a general term that encompasses health states that result in neurons losing their structure, not functioning properly, and ultimately, dying. Trauma, toxins, poisons are not considered neurodegenerative; nor is Multiple Sclerosis, which targets neurons’ myelin sheaths. Most states considered “neurodegenerative” by definition are related to issues that degrade neurons directly, like Alzheimer’s, ALS and Parkinson’s. Risk for neurodegenerative problems tends to increase with age.
This is a broad term that refers to brain chemicals that act primarily as communicators of information, relaying signals in the brain to other parts of the brain, and throughout the body. They are required not only for proper function of organs, but also the regulation of mood, concentration, and many other important factors of brain function. Examples include Acetylcholine, Serotonin and Dopamine. More on Neurotransmitters
These specialized cells within the nervous system function primarily as conduits of information from one neuron to another and between neurons and other parts of the body. The messages they send to each other are electrical impulses, coordinated by various neurotransmitters. As humans age, the production of new neurons slows down, and neurons begin to die. Within the brain, neurons are sometimes simply called “brain cells.”
This is a broad term that refers to the birth and growth of new neurons. For some time, neurons were thought to be finite; that once they died, they were impossible to regenerate. A 1998 study proved otherwise, demonstrating that the human brain can regenerate fresh new brain cells, even in older adults. Brain cells are constantly repaired, maintained and renewed; these bio-activities are closely related to neurogenesis and the concept of brain plasticity. Nootropics phosphatidylserine and Lion’s Mane Mushroom are believed to promote neurogenesis in the brain.
Otherwise known as Noradrenaline, it is a Catecholamine that is essential for the energy levels of the brain. Without enough of it, certain mood disorders can develop, such as depression. Dopamine is converted into Norepinephrine in the adrenal glands; it is released to enable a range of nervous system functions, helping to regulate sleep and the ability to wake up, appetite and feeding patterns, and attention span.
Oxidative stress refers to a body state in which cell-damaging free radicals overwhelm the body’s natural defenses against them, namely, antioxidants. Due to its energy-intensive, “oxygen-burning” nature, the brain is a site of high free radical activity; if left unchecked, these reactive oxygen species (ROS) are believed to attack, degrade and damage neurons. The oxidative stress that follows is linked to a range of neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s. Nootropic antioxidants that help to counter oxidative stress in the brain include Ubiquinol and Pterostilbene.
These life-supporting fats are critically important for both neurotransmitter health and brain cell health. They are naturally occurring and make up most of the lipid quantities in the brain, which is itself comprised of 2/3rds fats. Within the brain, phospholipids help coordinate the mobilization and usage of fats. Phospholipids also help reinforce structure of brain cells and brain cell membranes, promote neurogenesis, and may aid memory and overall cognitive function. Phospholipid levels decline with age; this decline has been suggested to play a part in age-related cognitive decline. Phospholipid-class nootropic supplements like phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylserine, and citicoline, supply phospholipids and may help replenish brain levels. start to decline as the human body ages.
Plasticity, also called brain plasticity or neuroplasticity, refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize and form new neural connections in response to new experiences and new learning. While the brain was once though to have a fixed structure, more recent research overwhelmingly demonstrates that the brain is always changing, shifting, and reorganizing its neurons. Plasticity encompasses neurogenesis and synaptic changes. Robust, healthy brain plasticity is a hallmark of sharp memory, learning and peak cognitive performance. Lion’s Mane, racetams, and blueberry-derived pterostilbene are nootropics that have been suggested to help promote brain plasticity.
This group of synthetic compounds contains many Nootropics, and is characterized by the sharing of a Pyrrolidone Nucleus. The Nootropic variations of Racetams provide increased brain function, sharper cognitive performance and improved memory. They work in part by increasing neural plasticity, making it easier to learn, absorb and memorize new concepts.
Along with the Encoding and Storage of memory, Recall is one of the three major components of a functioning memory. It is the process of calling upon a memory that is already stored and encoded within the brain. An example of this would be writing an essay in a test-like scenario.
Serotonin is a type of Biogenic Amine Neurotransmitter that helps primarily to regulate sleep and wakefulness. Serotonin deficiency is linked with anxiety, depression and a slew of mental disorders. Although Serotonin is present in the brain in relatively small amounts, it is responsible for many behavioral patterns and roles, including sex, mood and learning processes.
Memory has a few different types, one of which is short term memory. This type of memory, which is based on the recollection of more recent events, is characterized by a two traits. These are temporal decay and chunk capacity, which refer to the fact that the brain can retain new information only to a certain extent (chunk capacity) and only temporarily (temporal decay). This may be enhanced by nootropic nutrients, with ALCAR showing some promise for short-term memory performance in adults with brain degeneration.
Storage of memories is quantified by the amount of information a person can store, and the length of time a person can remember it, otherwise known as capacity and duration. These are different depending on whether long term memory or short term memory is being utilized. Healthy adults can store anywhere from 5-9 items for approximately 30 seconds with their short term memory. The duration and capacity of long term memory is thought to be unlimited.
Synapses are interesting because they are actually the empty spaces between neurons. When neurons charge, they send electrical signals across the synaptic cleft in order to reach each other. Healthy brain activity is dependent on the proper function of synaptic activity, and obstructions like Amyloid Plaques that can block synapses can cause serious problem with a number of brain functions including learning, memory and cognition.
This specific type of cognitive decline is caused by impaired bloodflow to the brain. Vascular Dementia may be caused by stroke, which severely block brain circulation. Conditions that degrade the blood vessels to the brain, such as high blood pressure, high homocysteine levels, and atherosclerosis, are also linked to vascular dementia. Vascular dementia symptoms are similar to dementia overall: Slowed mental processing, memory problems, confusion, mood swings and other cognitive abnormalities.
A pleasant, meditative-like brain state, wakeful relaxation is associated with alpha-frequency brainwaves. Wakeful relaxation is suggested to benefit productivity and creativity. The nootropic L-Theanine is noted for its ability to promote alpha brainwaves and instill feelings of wakeful relaxation.
This region makes up more than half of the human brain, and is essential for the speed of neurological signals sent from one part of the brain to another. There is overwhelming evidence that White Matter aids in learning and information processing.
This is a type of memory that is different from both long term and short term memory. Working memory is distinct from other types of memory in that memories are not only remembered, but also simultaneously processed. In other words, you not only remember important information, but you remember the purpose of the information, and why you decided to remember it in the first place.