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What are Nootropics?

What are Nootropics?

Despite the fancy name, you've probably heard of (and tried) a few nootropics already!
Clinical insight
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What are Nootropics?

What does Nootropic mean?

The word ‘nootropic’ is derived from the Greek nóos which means ‘mind’, and tropé which means ‘to bend or turn’.1a The term was originally coined by a Romanian psychologist Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, during his investigation of the brain-enhancing compound, piracetam. 2a
Today, the term ‘nootropic’ is generally used to refer to any substance that helps the brain in any way. 3a More specifically, nootropics are those compounds that may enhance mental performance, improve memory or learning. You might also hear the terms brain boosters, smart drugs, or memory-enhancing drugs thrown around.

Common examples of Nootropics

Despite the fancy name, you’ve probably heard of (and tried) a few nootropics already! Caffeine, turmeric, artichoke, ginseng and rosemary may all (loosely) be classed as nootropics, because they affect the brain in one way or another. 4a

Nootropic Supplements

There are also a number of natural health supplements on the market that may help to boost memory and focus. These include Bacopa monnieri, Panax ginseng, Ginkgo biloba, and Rhodiola rosea, but there are many more. 5a-d

How do Nootropics work?

The term encompasses such a broad range of substances - from naturally occurring plants or herbs, to manmade prescription drugs - it makes answering this question difficult because they all work differently. But generally speaking, it is believed that most nootropics work in some way by protecting neurons in the brain from becoming damaged by toxins or aging. 2b Nootropic substances are believed to increase blood and oxygen flow to the brain, which may help to improve brain functioning. 2b

The Research for Nootropics

With such a variety of potential ‘nootropics’, it is best to assess the evidence for each substance in its own right. Let’s take a few examples:

1. Coffee

The caffeine in coffee has been shown to enhance the brain’s ability to consolidate long term memories, with researchers at John Hopkins University demonstrating that caffeine enhances certain memories for at least 24 hours after it is consumed. 6a-7a It works by blocking a certain type of receptor in your brain, which makes you feel less tired (hallelejah!) and increases your alertness and attention while reducing your reaction time. 5e, 6a, 7a

2. Bacopa monnieri 

This ancient herb used in Ayurvedic medicine has been shown to speed up information processing in the brain and improve memory. It is thought to work by protecting your brain from oxidative stress and improving signalling in the area of your brain where memories are processed. 5a

3. Panax ginseng 

Ginseng is a popular and well researched medicine that’s been used in North America and Asia for thousands of years. 8a The root of this plant has been shown to reduce brain fatigue and significantly improve performance on difficult tasks like mental arithmetic, as well as helping with concentration and memory. 5b, 8b

Taking Nootropics

If you’re thinking about taking a supplement to boost your brain functioning here’s some top tips to consider before you do:

•    Do your research – check out what compounds your product contains and whether there is clinical evidence to support its benefits
•    Allow the product time to work – some substances need to be taken over a period of time before effects can be seen 5a
•    Address your overall health – a healthy balanced diet and regular exercise are great for brain health too! 2c
•    Speak with your GP if you are taking any other medications, to make sure they can be taken together safely


1.    Oxford University Press. Nootropic. Available at:
2.    Men’s Health. What are Nootropics? Available at:
3.    MindLabPro. What are Nootropics? Brain-boosters defined and explained. Available at:
4.    MindLabPro. List of nootropics. Available at:
5.    HealthLine. The 14 best nootropics and smart drugs reviewed. Available at:
6.    SBS. 7 ways to eat to boost your brainpower, without taking supplements. Available at:
7.    Borota D et al. Nature Neuroscience 2014;17:201-3.
8.    Nootropics Expert. Ginseng. Available at:

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