What Are Nootropics? History, How They Work And Types Explained

Nowadays, with the advent of modern science, it is possible to reach an entire new level of mental acuity.

Enter nootropics, smart drugs, brain-boosters or whatever you want to call them and watch how much better our brains perform under their influence.

What are Nootropics

So, what are nootropics? 

Put simply, a nootropic is any substance that helps with the brain’s ability to process information, memory, alertness, concentration and wakefulness.

At first, it can be hard to believe such substances exist at all but when you consider how a simple nootropic such as caffeine entrenched its way into the modern world, things become clearer.

It is estimated that over three-quarters of the US population drink coffee, with almost half drinking it every day.

Although nootropic usage is widespread amongst the world population, the term itself is relatively unknown.


It is quite remarkable how science works sometimes; researchers try to do one thing but end up with something completely different.

Think of the way Viagra was discovered.

It was a similar story with nootropics.

In the 60’s, scientists were trying to discover a substance that would seamlessly enter the blood-brain barrier and help subjects with sleep.

While the experiment proved to be a failure, a molecule was synthesized which exhibited strange behavior at first; it seemed to be completely inactive, no matter what the scientists did!

To make matters worse, it didn’t correspond to any known molecules at that time.

Only after it had been tested on eye movements (nystagmus) did Piracetam, the first nootropic, show activity.

After the scientists realized the potential of this new substance, human trials soon began.

The trials showed Piracetam to be well-tolerated, even at higher dosages over longer periods of time.

The most important finding was Piracetam’s ability to influence the brain in a way to be more efficient compared to placebo.

In 1972, the lead researcher of the project, Corneliu Giurgea, coined the term nootropic and the rest is history!

How Do Nootropics Work

The complete function of any substance that interacts with the brain is going to be an enigma, mainly because we don’t fully understand the human brain.

We know that some nootropics work by crossing the blood-brain barrier and influencing certain chemicals in the brain but the exact interaction remains unknown to us.

There have been six proposed mechanisms by which nootropics influence the brain.

Let’s take a closer look at them.

1. Neurotransmitters

Messages between cells are handled by neurotransmitters. The more effective the messaging process, the better the brain functions.

There are many important neurotransmitters in the brain that are influenced by nootropics, such as Dopamine, Serotonin, Acetylcholine, Glutamate and Norepinephrine.

Dopamine Nootropics

If this messaging process is disbalanced in any way, emotions and cognition become negatively affected.

If that happens, nootropics can help alleviate the original cause of disruption by acting on receptor sensitivity and neurotransmitter synthesis.

2. Blood Flow

The brain depends on chemicals, such as glucose and oxygen, which are delivered to it via blood.

Not only that but waste is also removed, especially carbon dioxide, which is perilous to the brain as it directly counteracts the positive effects of oxygen.

Nootropics can help increase blood flow to the brain by relaxing blood vessels, preventing oxidative damage and ‘liquifying’ blood cells, making coagulation less of a threat.

3. Brain Energy

To maintain optimal function, the brain requires a lot of glucose, making it the biggest energy consumer in the body, which amounts to 20% of the total production.

Given how hectic our lives are, there is a serious shortage of brain energy since we’re not consuming the right foods.

Nootropics brain energy

Luckily, nootropics can help feed the brain by aiding the transportation process of brain food, increasing oxygen production and lastly, increasing the activity of mitochondria.

4. Brain Waves

There are four main types of brain waves, including alpha, beta, theta and delta waves.

Alpha waves (8-12 Hz) are characterized by deep concentration, the flow state and enhanced learning.

Beta waves (12,5-30 Hz) are our primary state throughout the day. They are distinguished by alertness and cognition.

Nootropics brain waves

Theta waves (4-7 Hz) are mostly released during sleep. They happen mostly during dreams and lucid dreaming.

Delta waves (0,5 – 4 Hz) are characterized by deep sleep. It is when our brain is submerged into our subconsciousness.

The most sought-after state are alpha waves, since they promote brain performance, creativity and learning.

Nootropics such as L-Theanine can help induce alpha waves by facilitating the production of γ-aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating dopamine and serotonin in the brain.

5. Neuroregeneration

As the name implies, neuroregeneration involves the creation of new neurons, which helps with brain function since neurons are the fundamental cells responsible for communication between the nervous system and the brain.

Nootropics can help with neuroregeneration by boosting NGF (Nerve growth factor) which is responsible for the proliferation and maintenance of existing neurons.

Not only that but they can also supply the brain with choline, an essential nutrient which regulates the entire function of our brain.

6. Neuroprotection

Although our brains are protected from physical harm by our skull, neurodegeneration can still occur due to factors like aging and inflammation.

Certain nootropics are here to help, mainly by changing our response to stress, helping with the disposal of neurotoxins, fighting amyloids and increasing oxygen flow.

Types of Nootropics

Not all nootropics are created equally.

Nootropics range from dietary supplements, such as fish oil to full-blown stimulants, like Adderall.

There are many ways to differentiate nootropics, some people talk about natural and synthetic nootropics, others divide them whether they are OTC (over-the-counter) or Rx (prescription).

For better understanding of nootropics and the types that exist, we’ll divide them into four categories:

1. Racetams

Racetams are substances that share a common nucleus, specifically 2-Pyrrolidone. Some of them are nootropics, such as Piracetam and Aniracetam, others are anticonvulsants, such as Brivaracetam and Seletracetam.

Racetams differentiate from one another by their mechanism of action.

Some work by modulating AMPA receptors, which are known for controlling memory, concentration, mood and focus.

Others affect the cholinergic system in the brain, which means that they mimic the action of acetylcholine, the primary neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic nervous system.

2. Stimulants of the CNS (Central Nervous System)

Stimulants, in low dosages, stimulate the central nervous system in such a way that increases cognition.

The primary mechanism of action of these substances lies in the enhancement of catecholamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for memory, concentration, motivation, creativity and retention.

The most popular stimulant of today is Caffeine, commonly found in coffee, followed by Adderall, a medication used for the treatment of ADHD and narcolepsy.

Other known stimulants are eugeorics (such as Modafinil), which promote wakefulness and alertness.

The last stimulant we’ll mention, Nicotine, improves attention span and working memory, proven by an analysis spanning over forty studies.

3. Cholinergics

A cholinergic is any compound comparable to choline, a nutrient essential for the production of acetylcholine.

Some nootropics are both a racetam and cholinergic, such as Aniracetam.

The most popular cholinergic of today is Alpha-GPC, which is known for its overall great tolerability, as well as improved performance on memory tests.

4. Nutraceuticals

Last but not least, nutraceuticals are food products which act as nootropics. Some people call them the ‘natural’ class of nootropics.

Their effects are typically weaker when compared to the three categories above but they have fewer side effects and are generally considered very safe.

Examples include Ginkgo biloba and Bacopa monnieri.


Nootropics are becoming more popular by the day and this trend will only get bigger in the future.

Our stress-filled lives demand a quick pick-me-up and nootropics fit the bill perfectly.

However, nootropics are poorly regulated and you’re taking a chance every time you purchase them online.

That’s why our team of experts created a list of recommended Nootropic companies which are 100% safe and pre-tested.

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