Which Cognitive Enhancers Really Work

Not so long ago, we reviewed wonder drug NZT, which is claimed to boost brain efficiency to the point of instantly mastering the stock market and learning an entire foreign language in a single day.

We found NZT was nothing more than a storyteller’s idea, and its web page was a promotional stunt to publicise the movie “Limitless”. If you don’t know the movie, it’s about a total loser who’s transformed into a winner thanks to a fictional smart drug, which is … you guessed it: NZT.

But there’s no need to get disappointed: there are definitely ways of boosting your brainpower, but not, as yet, to the extent of learning a foreign language in a single day, or even coming close to mastering the stock market.

For example, you could reduce your intake of:

  • Salt
  • Sugar (even fruit juices)
  • Soft drinks
  • Alcohol
  • Processed foods
  • Trans fats
  • Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil

Or you could even cut them out completely and enjoy a much more noticeable difference in your memory and thinking processes.

You could also include more of these in your diet:

  • Coconut oil
  • Eggs
  • Dark chocolate (honest!)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Nuts
  • Avocados
  • Blueberries

Which Cognitive Enhancers Really Work

And let’s not forget the benefits of a bit of exercise – equally good both for the body and the brain.

However, since we’re in the business of reviewing supplements, what we’ll be looking at here are those cognitive enhancers readily available from the manufacturers. As for finding out which of them works best for you, it’s not a simple case of picking the supplement you think looks like it’ll give you what you need. So much depends on your physical, mental, and even emotional makeup at the time.

This means choosing the most suitable cognitive supplement for you could end up being a long and complicated process involving a certain amount of trial and error.

So let’s dive in and find out more about cognitive enhancers, but before we do, please don’t expect to find anything here you could risk arrest to get ahold of: we’re not here to encourage anyone to break the law. First, let’s find out precisely how cognitive enhancers work.

The brain is made up of more than a hundred billion nerve cells, called neurons. They communicate with each other through trillions of connections via certain chemicals sent from one cell to another. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters. They’re released at the end of the cell connection (the axon) and have to travel across a small gap to the receptor area at the beginning of the next cell (the dendrite).

It’s not a one-way journey, though: those neurotransmitters have to go back across that gap (the synapse) to the axon, so they can be recycled and used once more when needed. But the longer it takes them to cross back again, the more chance they have of being destroyed by enzymes in the area.

If you’ve heard the term “re-uptake” and wondered what it meant, it describes the process of neurotransmitters being returned to, and recycled by, the original neuron that fired them out in the first place. The three main neurotransmitters, at least as far as cognitive enhancers are concerned, are substances called acetylcholine, dopamine, and glutamate (a very distant relation to monosodium glutamate, but unlike MSG it’s produced within the body, and therefore much, much better for you).

Acetylcholine and glutamate look after learning, the formation of memories and sensory input, while dopamine take care of focus, mood, and motivation. That’s a bit simplistic, and there are other neurotransmitters, but in general cognitive enhancers boost the effectiveness of communication between neurons, and they do so in different ways.

Which Cognitive Enhancers Really Work, brain cogs

Some enhancers increase the amount of the neurotransmitter itself, while others improve the efficiency of the nerve endings sending and receiving those chemicals. Other cognitive enhancers improve mental performance either by increasing the amount of oxygen the brain receives, or by raising the amount of glucose or other nutrients the brain needs to function well. And still other cognitive enhancers stimulate the growth and development of new nerve cells within the brain, and their connections to other cells.

No matter how they work, the net result of taking cognitive enhancers is helping the brain strengthen (and sometimes deliberately weaken) the connection between nerve cell transmitters and receptors.

Technically speaking, that’s often referred to “synaptic plasticity”, but in real terms it’s nothing more than making it easier for you to remember what you’ve just seen or heard.

There are several different types of cognitive enhancers on the market today, and they include:

  • Racetams – these work either by improving the function of certain neurotransmitter receptors, boosting neurotransmitter production or by slowing down neurotransmitter breakdown.
  • Cholinergics – these work by increasing the stimulation of nerve cell receptors.
  • Acetylcholinesterase Inhibitors – these work by preventing an enzyme from breaking down a certain kind of neurotransmitter chemical.
  • Ampakines – these work by promoting the growth of neurons.

And then we have the official Smart Drugs themselves. Let’s take a quick look at some of the ones you can find on the market today:

  • Adrafinil kicks the hormonal system into fight-or-flight state, and by doing so lengthens the attention span while boosting mental stamina and motivation.
  • Modafinil encourages the nervous system to promote a state of intense concentration and mental focus.
  • Adderall stimulates hormones to trigger the release of certain neurotransmitters, bringing on a raised state of mental focus and increased concentration.
  • Ritalin works on the central nervous system while preventing neurotransmitters from being destroyed in the gap between neurons. It also boosts neuron function in the area of the brain relating to motivation, mental clarity and controlling impulsive behavior.
  • Piracetam improves the function of the neurotransmitter responsible for consolidating memory.
  • Noopept is thought to be between 500 and 1000 times more potent than Piracetam. It works with specific receptor sites within in the brain to improve focus, thinking and memory.
  • Choline provides an essential molecule for conversion to the neurotransmitter Acetylecholine, the more of which the better the communication between neurons. Choline’s also good for slowing down aging in the brain.

Then again, there are some seriously special and extremely extreme cognitive enhancers just appearing on the scene, such as:

  • Desmopressin – a synthetic derivative of a naturally-occurring chemical in the brain. Interestingly enough, it’s a common prescription for bedwetting, since its main use is to limit how much water is contained in urine. However, it also seriously improves the action of storing memories and improving them.
  • Protein Kinase RNA-Activated Inhibitors, more commonly known as PNR Inhibitors – These have nothing to do with soggy bedsheets, but still have an extremely beneficial effect on memory and learning. This was discovered when testing mice in a maze: it took several training sessions for one set of mice to learn their way from the beginning of that maze to the end. The other set of mice, who’d been given a dose of a PKR Inhibitor were shown how to navigate the maze just the once … and that was all they needed to find their way through the maze and out again. Right now, researchers are in the process of testing a marketable version for humans, so watch this space.
  • Cerebrolysin – the cognitive enhancer that comes closest to that fictional NZT. It’s been tested on Alzheimer’s patients and the improvement in their cognition, memory and learning is just phenomenal. And for those not suffering from Alzheimer’s the effects are equally startling, speeding up the building and growth of neurons in the brain. One snag, though, is that it needs to be administered by injection.

You won’t find these last three at your local pharmacy, and they’re extremely expensive – at least for now. But who’s to say how things are going to change in the future?

So, back to the main question: which cognitive enhancer really works best for you? And the answer is, of course, that it depends on what you want to use it for.

Some cognitive enhancers such as Aniracetam are ideal for a quick boost in the short term, like the morning of an important exam. Others, like Adrafinil, are perfect for the medium term, like those weeks of revision before that exam. And still others such as Noopept are excellent for the long haul, offering anything from a general improvement in a person’s mental (and, often, emotional) faculties to the prevention of age-related mental decline.

Which Cognitive Enhancers Really Work, pill tablet

However, as we’ve said before, there’s more to selecting the right cognitive enhancer for you than just looking through a selection on offer and then choosing the one that’s most appealing. There’s your diet to consider, your lifestyle, your genetic makeup, and even how much you’ve been exposed to environmental toxins. And let’s not forget the potential for “stacking”, where once you’ve decided which cognitive enhancers work best for you, you then mix them together to boost their combined effects.

All in all, you’ve got a huge and confusing minefield of variables here: do you want to improve your attention span … your memory … your ability to stay on-task? Do you want something only available on prescription or would you be happy with a product you can buy online or over the counter? How many times a day do you want to take it? How long do you want the effects to last for? What kind of side-effects are you prepared to put up with? How much do you want to spend?

And in the case of NZT, do you want something that’s real … or imaginary? After all, who wouldn’t want to master the stock market, and then learn a language in a single day?

On the other hand, if you’re just looking for a simple quick mental boost, there’s always the caffeine in a cup of coffee – it’s readily available, effective, and best of all, it’s totally uncomplicated!

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