Nootropics are categorised into main groups: racetams, cholinergics, ampakines, anxiolytics, neurodilators, neuronutrients, serotonergics and eugeroics. Benefits from nootropics in each of these groups are different and even within the same group some substances work in a slightly different manner.
Although Nootropics are often categorised based on their mechanisms of action, mechanistic basis of nootropics is currently not fully understood. Having said that, scientists are making a lot of new discoveries in this area thereby improving our knowledge of the subject. In fact, a considerable amount of evidence has already been accumulated, helping us to describe the fundamental principles and processes of how these supplements work.
Therefore, the purpose of this article is to describe the basic systems and chemicals in the brain directly affected by nootropics. It is well documented that most nootropics impact the levels of important brain chemicals, including choline, glutamate, dopamine and serotonin.
Neurotransmitters and synaptic receptors:
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that work as messengers within the brain. They carry nerve signals and impulses from one neuron to another. Neurotransmitters can be excitatory or inhibitory. The excitatory neurotransmitters amplify the transmitted message, while the inhibitory ones restrict the travel of the signal and hinder its reception.
Based on the type of message being transported, neurotransmitters then bind with post-synaptic receptors. Normally these are simply called receptors or, alternatively, receptor sites on nerve synapses. Neurotransmitters and their receptors make up systems. A brain is made up of a very large number of such systems.
“So, the main job of a nootropic is to target one or more of these systems and increase their efficiency.”
Most of the targeted systems are responsible for numerous cognitive functions (e.g., memory).
Acetylcholine and the cholinergic system:
Cholinergic system is basically built upon acetylcholine neurotransmitter. It is crucial to a number of very important cognitive functions, such as learning, memory, focus, decision making and sensory perception. Two main types of receptors are present in the cholinergic system: nicotinic and muscarinic. In case you wonder, the first one was named because of its links with nicotine.
In order to produce acetylcholine, the human body has to have sufficient levels of choline. We naturally consume this nutrient through our diet. However, the consumed amount is very low, which makes majority of individuals choline deficient. That alone is a good enough reason why you should take a high quality choline supplement. Alpha GPC or Citicoline are good sources of choline.
For full benefits of acetylcholine precursors, they should be taken in combination with agonists. This induces a synergistic effect. Nootropics of the racetam family are known to be acetylcholine agonists. They stimulate the synapses, but do not produce extra acetylcholine.
“When the acetylcholine agonists are stacked with a choline source, the synergistic effects can be additive and very powerful.”
As one supplement increases the number of synapses, another one boosts the production of the neurotransmitter. Such combination of nootropics is beneficial for the synaptic plasticity. As a result, you will be able to get your head around new concepts and remember them much easier.
Glutamate and the glutamatergic system:
Glutamate is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the brain. It does an extremely important job of maintaining the brain health and promoting our memory and learning skills. GABA, a neurotransmitter responsible for mood and relaxation is actually produced from glutamate.
“Hence, healthy brain function relies heavily on adequate levels of glutamate.”
Abnormal levels of glutamate can be indicative of certain problems. For instance, excessive amount of glutamate outside the cells can be a warning sign of misfiring receptors. Such cases may trigger the development of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, ADHD, autism and other neurological diseases.
Glutamate receptor sites, NMDA and AMPA, are targeted by virtually every type of nootropic supplements. Both racetams and ampakines stimulate these sites and increase the levels of glutamate. This improves your memory, while boosting your mental energy and focus.
Dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters:
Dopamine and serotonin are two well-known neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of pleasure and happiness. The chemicals and their associated systems are also directly responsible for mood, motivation, reward, memory and focus. Even though neither of the neurotransmitters is the primary target of nootropic supplements, they often get positively affected as secondary mechanisms.
There are some notable differences between the two systems. Effects on dopamine can be remarkable. However, there is a danger of developing an addiction. That is why prescription medications, like Adderall and Ritalin, which are amphetamine compounds, can be addictive.
Nootropics, on the other hand, offer similar effects without any negative side effects. Nootropics can influence and modulate serotonin levels, which primarily has an uplifting effect on mood. In general, these neurotransmitters contribute and enhance the overall experience associated with nootropics use.
What are the benefits of using nootropics?
Nootropics are involved in the synthesis and regulation of key neurotransmitters: acetylcholine, glutamate, GABA, dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are chemicals crucial to the optimal functioning of the brain. Neurotransmitters and synapses between neurons control how you feel, how well you can memorise things, how deep your focus and much more. Nootropics optimise these connections and improve our everyday abilities and skills so that maximum results can be achieved.