What is a nootropic?

What are nootropics?

The word “nootropic” was first proposed in 1972 by the pharmacologist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea.1 The term nootropic derived from two Greek words: “noos”, meaning “mind”, and “tropein”, meaning “towards”. So its literal meaning is “to turn towards the mind”.

Nootropics, often referred to as “smart drugs”, is the term used to describe cognition enhancers. Concentration, focus, memory formation, attention, motivation, learning capacity, ability to recall complex information, clarity of mind and mood are among cognitive functions positively affected by nootropics.

Due to their wide range of benefits and a growing pressure to gain a competitive edge in today’s society, nootropics are very popular among students and people in cognitively demanding professions. Reportedly, nootropics are one of the secrets of very successful Wall Street financial traders, bankers and analysts and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Nootropics have been growing in popularity over the past few years, particularly after the film Limitless.

The guide to finding nootropics:

Although there has been a big interest in nootropics and their effects, it is important to note that not all substances qualify for the classification. Criteria for a substance to be considered a nootropic include:

  • It should improve learning and memory, especially under conditions of impaired cognitive function
  • It should have no adverse side effects
  • It should have no detectable toxicity
  • It should increase the resistance of the brain to physical and chemical injuries
  • It should enhance the efficacy of tonic cortical/subcortical control mechanisms of the cortex

How do nootropics work?

In terms of their chemical structure and biological function, nootropics differ quite a lot. This is because they are extracted and purified components of different herbs and plants as well as synthetic compounds (e.g. racetams). Different nootropics affect different parts of the brain and therefore result in different cognitive benefits.

“The quest to enhance human potential is age old, which includes searching for ways and methods to maximise the brain’s potential.”

Furthermore, with the ageing populations in industrialised countries, there is a growing interest and drive in the scientific community to develop substances with neuroprotective properties. Cognitive disorders are often associated with neurotransmitter deficiencies. For example, depression is characterised by low levels of serotonin and dopamine neurotransmitters. Be it accidental brain damage, genetic condition or ageing effect there is a great need to discover substances that can alleviate or prevent cognitive decline. This would lead to a better quality of life.

Each nootropic affects the brain in its own unique way. Thus, precise mechanisms of action of nootropics are not fully understood yet. However, it is known that these nootropic agents:

  • Activate cholinergic networks to increase acetylcholine levels. Acetylcholine is a very important neurotransmitter that plays a role in learning, memory, muscle coordination and movement.
  • Increase brain metabolism by stimulating cerebral blood circulation so there is more oxygen and ATP available to neurons.
  • Improve phospholipid metabolism and protein synthesis.
  • Strengthen brain’s neural connections.

Main groups of nootropics:

With the progress of modern science, there is a large variety of nootropics available on the market. These cognitive aids offer different benefits and come at a different price. The main subcategories of nootropics are:

  • Metabolic enhancers (e.g. Vinpocetine) – a group of nootropics specifically desigened to increase the cerebral blood flow and ATP production. As a result, there is an instant effect on focus and memory formation. Thus, metabolic enhancers are mainly used to treat attention, language and/or memory deficits.
  • Cholinergic activators (e.g. Huperzine A) – these are nootropics specifically targeting cholinergic system. Scientists in the early 1980s discovered that memory loss and cognitive decline were associated with low levels of acetylcholine and reduced function of cholinergic system. As a result, a number of nootropics that work by either inhibiting an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine or increases the levels of choline levels were developed.
  • Racetams – probably the most popular subgroup of nootropics. Piracetam was the first racetam and nootropic agent. There are now several commercially available products (e.g. Aniracetam, Pramiracetam, Oxiracetam, Coluracetam & Nefiracetam) with a similar chemical structure and all of which share a pyrrolidine nucleus. Racetams have been proven to be pharmacologically safe compounds.
  • Learning accelerators (e.g. iQuzil) – this is one of the latest subcategories of nootropics. Learning accelerators are unique formulas specifically designed to increase productivity and enhance learning capacity.
  • Nootropic drinks or functional nootropic beverages (e.g. iQtonic) – nootropic drinks are predicted to be as popular as energy drinks in the near future.


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In order to achieve optimal cognitive performance, a range of systems need to work simultaneously and effectively. Our brain is a hugely complex network of neurons. Neurons communicate by transmitting information via chemicals known as neurotransmitters. The efficiency of that process directly influences different aspects of our lives, including learning capacity, productivity, mood and even relationships.

A healthy and fully functioning brain is a central component of our existence. Therefore, a new world of Nootropia can help you cope with growing pressures and demands of modern society.


  1. Giurgea, C.E. (1982) The nootropic concept and its prospective implications, Drug Dev Res. 2:441-446.