What Does "Nootropic" Mean?
Nootropics in the most basic definition are chemicals that boost the brain's ability to function.
The term "nootropic" was originally coined by Dr. Giurgea in 1964 when he created piracetam, the first nootropic. He believed the brain was capable of changing and expanding. His nootropic was designed to facilitate the brain's natural ability to change, which it has done very well even to this day.
If you break the term nootropic down, you get nous, which means mind, and trepein, which means to bend. In effect, nootropic means “to bend the mind”, or “bendable mind”. This is a fitting name, as it suggests the idea that they can change the structure of the brain, making it perform in ways it may not have performed before.
This concept of mind-bending plays a lot into the concept of neuroplasticity that's been thrown around a lot in recent years. Somewhat incorrectly I might add. Neuroplasticity is the idea that the nerve cells making up the brain are able to reconnect in different places. This is mostly true for the very young as the brain develops. New connections are made all the time, as the brain is in a constant state of flux and change. As we age, however, these connections become more cemented and are less capable of reconnecting in new ways.
One of my favorite blogs, Neuroskeptic points out time and time again that if we really had the neuroplasticity that so many people promise, brain damage would not be a problem. When the brain is damaged, it would simply remake the connections elsewhere and avert the problem area completely. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
There is, however, at least some degree of neuroplasticity in the adult brain. It's necessary for us to learn and develop new memories and skills.
Nootropics don't give the brain neuroplasticity, no matter how much advertising any given brands may toss around. They do, however, improve the general functioning of the brain, and can promote some of this low-level neuroplasticity by improving various processes in the brain.
Nootropics Can Help Us By:
- Improving recovery from concussions
- Forming new connections with new skills and memories
- Maintaining healthy brain structure
- Preventing or reduce oxidative and free radical damage
- Providing the materials needed for regular maintenance of the brain and neurotransmitters
- Stimulating the replenishment of neurotransmitters
- Increasing the blood flow to the brain
- Increasing cellular byproduct removal
The Usefulness of Nootropics
Nootropics are an interesting class of substances. They're often taken by healthy individuals to optimize the performance of their minds. Sort of like how a bodybuilder or athlete uses supplements aimed at optimizing the performance of their body.
It's the same concept, and even has similar features. Nootropics can stimulate, support, or inhibit certain actions in the body to achieve results. The brain is like a muscle (figuratively speaking), and needs to be both exercised and fed the proper nutrients in order to work to its fullest potential. Many people use these substances while learning a new language, studying, during creative thought processes, and for managing long durations of both work and study or improving reaction times.
Aside from optimisation, nootropics can help to prevent many of the natural degenerative diseases from developing in the brain. The mains ones include Alzheimer's and dementia, but can also encompass Parkinson's disease and Multiple Sclerosis. They are especially useful for any age-related cognitive decline.
This works by keeping the system functioning optimally, and preventing the loss of neurons for as long as possible.
The most common action nootropics use to prevent neuronal loss it through a combination of anti-acetylcholinesterase activity, and antioxidant activity. Other mechanisms can involve vasodilation of the cerebral arteries, and nerve growth factor stimulation.
Anxiety and Depression
Some nootropics, especially the ones that work by improving dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain can be an effective prevention for depression and anxiety.
There are many different markers for depression, including oxidative damage in the hippocampus, serotonin or dopamine insufficiencies or dysfunctions, and even elevated levels of cortisol.
Depending on the marker, different nootropics will have different levels of effectiveness for treating depression. Dopaminergic, serotinergic, adaptogenic, antioxidant, and anti-acetylcholinesterase nootropics could all be used in varying amounts to treat or prevent depression depending on the markers presented.
Many people use nootropics as a way to improve their dreaming as well. By improving dreaming states, memory storage can also greatly improve. This is achieved through a process known as memory consolidation.
Memory consolidation is the process of taking all of the “raw” memories from throughout the day, and storing them deep into the brain to keep them long term. It's a very important part of the memory formation process.
For others, dreaming is simply an enjoyable experience, and a way for us to connect more deeply with ourselves.
This isn't a new concept, as various cultures from around the world have been using herbs to promote more vibrant dreams, and improve the ability to remeber these dreams the following morening. Ayahuasca is a blend of nootropic and entheogenic plants that cause us to release the molecule that initiates dreaming in our brains. It allows shamans to find solutions ot their problems, and others to reach deeply inside their own mind to deal with problems or conflicts of the past and present.
The usefulness of dreaming deserves a post of its own so I'll leave it here for now.
Classes Of Nootropic Substances
Nootropics come in a wide range of mechanisms to produce their effect:
- Neurotransmitter modulators
- Adenosine modulators
- Nervine herbs
- Receptor site modulators
As you can see, there are plenty of different ways that nootropics can work and depending on the goals you have, or the condition you are treating or trying to prevent, these can be combined in a nearly infinite amount of combinations.
Nootropics are an incredibly vast, and interesting world, and one I believe everybody should at least know about. Over the next month, I will be posting weekly articles on the topic of nootropics. I will discuss some of my favourite stacks, plant based vs synthetic nootropics, the mechanisms of action, and more.
Feel free to drop me a line on either platform, and make suggestions on what information you would like me to write about.
The Sunlight Experiment