The phrase “brain experiments in the 1960s” most likely conjures images of a terrified patient with electrodes taped to their temples or a smoke-filled room filled with shady doctors observing someone they had just dosed with LSD.
However, at least one chemist found himself experimenting with molecules in a decidedly more altruistic manner. In the ’60s, Corneliu E. Giurgea, PhD, was a lead scientist on a team that was working to develop a neurotransmitter that could successfully cross the blood-brain barrier and work as a sleep aid. While unsuccessful with the sleep aid project, the team did make a discovery that would dramatically change treatments for a variety of conditions related to the human mind and in support of brain health.
During those experiments, Giurgea had determined that a particular molecule—called piracetam—interacted with the brain at a uniquely high level, with barely a trace of negative side effects. In 1972, he dubbed this new class of compounds “nootropics,” meaning “towards the mind.”
Giurgea’s research, and the decades of research that followed, found nootropics to be a viable agent in the enhancement of mental performance, increasing brain functions including memory, motivation, concentration, and attention. Nootropics achieve this by increasing the blood circulation to the brain, while also providing crucial nutrients and enhancing energy and oxygen flow to the brain.
But while Giurgea was able to synthesize nootropics in a lab, the natural world has proven to possess a wealth of these brain-boosting drugs. Let’s examine five of these nootropics and their potential to strengthen your mind.
Giurgea’s research, and the decades of research that followed, found nootropics to be a viable agent in the enhancement of mental performance, increasing brain functions including memory, motivation, concentration, and attention
Curcumin (turmeric) is one of the more promising natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant ingredients, finding its way into a variety of studies that demonstrate its ability as a pain reliever. Then there’s the nootropic Longvida® Curcumin, a patented form of curcumin developed by elite University neuroscientists that specifically supports brain function. A recent study used Longvida® Curcumin to determine its efficacy in producing a variety of healthy effects in middle-aged people. The results of that study displayed positive results that included a reduction in beta-amyloid protein, a key marker of age-related brain conditions.
“The beta-amyloid protein involved… is formed from the breakdown of a larger protein called amyloid precursor protein,” according to the National Institute on Aging. “One form, beta-amyloid 42, is thought to be especially toxic… Abnormal levels of this naturally occurring protein clump together to form plaques that collect between neurons and disrupt cell function.”
Aging has long been associated with cognitive decline in otherwise healthy individuals and as such, there has been a centuries-old effort to counter the seemingly unstoppable ravages of time. Bacopa monnieri, a perennial herb, has been used as part of Ayurvedic medicine for centuries as a memory and learning enhancer. In the modern world, a study in 2008 provided evidence that Bacopa monnieri extracts do indeed show a potential to safely enhance cognitive performance in aging. And a later neurological review of Bacopa monnieri revealed that the herb’s antioxidant qualities provide neuroprotection against oxidative stress caused by free radicals.
According to researchers, the “oxidative stress theory” says that the progressive and irreversible accumulation of damage caused by reactive oxygen species (an unstable oxygen molecule) impacts all critical aspects of the aging process—leading to impaired cognitive function.
“Aging is an inherently complex process that is manifested within an organism at genetic, molecular, cellular, organ, and system levels,” wrote Kevin Kregel, Department of Integrative Physiology and Free Radical and Radiation Biology Program, at the University of Iowa. “A growing body of evidence points toward reactive oxygen species as one of the primary determinants of aging.”
A study in 2008 provided evidence that Bacopa monnieri extracts do indeed show a potential to safely enhance cognitive performance in aging.
Another nootropic with a history that dates back thousands of years, ashwagandha has been hailed for its positive effects on mood and its anti-stress properties. Ashwagandha, like other adaptogens, has been shown to reduce stress-induced impairments and disorders related to the function of stress, including cortisol levels. One placebo-controlled study saw the herb administered to individuals with a history of chronic stress—with those receiving ashwagandha showing reduced stress-assessment scores.
In that study, a total of 64 subjects with a history of chronic stress were split into a placebo control group and the ashwagandha study group for 60 days. In the ashwagandha group, cortisol levels were substantially reduced and no serious adverse effects were reported. The study concluded that “a high-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract safely and effectively improves an individual's resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.”
The study concluded that “a high-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract safely and effectively improves an individual's resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.”
Ginkgo biloba has been tied to cognitive benefits for a long time. Its qualities as an antioxidant are thought to increase energy production in brain cells, decrease cell-damaging free radicals, and increase blood flow to the brain. A 2008 study suggested that Ginkgo biloba might also improve memory. That study followed 118 healthy people age 85 or older for three years, half taking Ginkgo and the others taking a placebo. The study’s results were preliminary, but suggested that Ginkgo may help slow progression of cognitive decline in the elderly and support a robust memory.
According to the Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences Service at the VA Medical Center in Louisville, KY, the country’s aging population (65 years or older) will consist of approximately 79 million people in the year 2050.
“Since memory disorders increase dramatically with age, this poses a major challenge to both the pharmaceutical and nutritional industries to provide products which improve or prevent problems with memory,” said the center. “Our culture is based on the ability to recall information, therefore problems with memory are fundamental to our entire social system.”
A 2008 study suggested that Ginkgo biloba might also improve memory.
Cereboost™ American Ginseng
While ginseng is often immediately associated with Asia, it is actually American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) that has received much attention for its potential cognitive benefits. This is mainly due to its distinct ginsenoside profile, the major active pharmacological component of ginseng. The standardized extract of American ginseng, Cereboost™, was used in a 2010 study to evaluate its neurocognitive properties in humans. The study showed that individuals who were administered cognition tests had a significant improvement in their working memory, reaction time, and calmness.
In testing cognitive functions, that study utilized the Computerised Mental Performance Assessment System (COMPASS) battery, which was developed to include tests shown to be sensitive to nutritional manipulations. The variety of tests in COMPASS include word recall, facial recognition, alphabetic memory, and much more.
Professor David Kennedy, who, along with Dr. Crystal Haskell, developed COMPASS at Northumbria University in the United Kingdom, said that the system has greatly streamlined cognitive research.
“All psychology departments have a requirement for cognitive testing, but many are using systems that need to be programmed specifically for each study,” he said. “Often this requires the need to use specialist computer programming language and can be very complex. COMPASS pulls together everything that's currently available in the market but with vastly greater capabilities.”
The standardized extract of American ginseng, Cereboost™, was used in a 2010 study to evaluate its neurocognitive properties in humans. The study showed that individuals who were administered cognition tests had a significant improvement in their working memory, reaction time, and calmness.
Food For Thought
The human brain is easily the most complex organ in our body—and it is still orders of magnitude more complex than anything developed by man, despite what all of the gadgets around us might lead us to believe.. While science is doing its best to catch up with our biological technology, the phenomenon of aging and the associated cognitive decline is a subject of major importance as the population continues to advance in age.
Scientific research shows that many nootropics possess the potential to change the way our brains age—which encompasses improvements to energy, mental stamina, memory, learning, and mood. It’s all food for thought, if you get our meaning.