July 17, 2019
Nootropics are a class of nutritional and herbal supplements designed to support optimal brain function.
There are hundreds of different mechanisms a nootropic may use to produce its effects on the body. Some are better for providing a boost in energy levels, others support focus and concentration, and some are more directed for protecting the brain from cognitive decline that can affect memory.
For the topic of this discussion, we’ll be looking at the nootropics that affect learning and memory.
We’ll discuss some of the mechanisms nootropics may use to enhance the process of memory, and talk about how and where memory originates in the first place.
Let’s get started.
Researchers have been trying to identify the source and mechanism of memory for generations. Only recently have we made any progress in this arena.
Our brains are made up of trillions of nerve cells. These nerve cells transmit electrical signals around the brain to generate our thoughts, imagination, and memories. One of the key neurotransmitters involved with sending these signals is acetylcholine (we’ll cover this in more detail below).
There isn’t any “one place” where memory is stored — instead, the brain appears to store bits of information in the form of memories throughout the entire brain. This is why head injuries that involve a loss of neurons in specific regions in the brain result in seemingly random lapses in memory.
Much like cloud computing, our brain stores small fragments of memory around different areas of the brain.
The brain is constantly taking in information from your surroundings and compiling it together as memory. If we were to remember everything we take in, we’d quickly run out of capacity for storage — so the brain takes measures to keep only what’s important.
The first type of memory is short-term memory. This is the memories you gain during a single day — you remember what you ate for breakfast, some of the faces you passed on the way to work, and other trivial events from the day. This information isn’t always important in the long-term, so without repeating this information the brain will eventually lose these memories.
Long-term memory is different. This is the type of memory the brain forms to remember important things, like information related to your job, family and friends' faces, or other important bits of information. The brain saves this type of information through repetition. The more this information is repeated, the stronger the memory becomes.
Now that we’ve covered some of the fundamentals of memory, we can start discussing how nootropics may be used to support these processes.
There are three main ways to target the formation of memories with nootropics:
Both the formation and retrieval of memory critically rely on nerve transmission speed. Have you ever noticed that when you’re tired your ability to remember things becomes much more difficult?
This is because when we’re tired, a compound in the brain known as adenosine builds up and causes a delay in our nerve transmission. Every signal the nerve sends is slowed down by the adenosine, making it more difficult to make decisions, and retrieve or create new memories.
This process is designed to make us feel tired to prepare us for sleep.
The best supplement for reversing this process is caffeine — one of the most popular nootropics known to humankind.
The caffeine molecule has the ability to kick adenosine off the neurons and prevent it from reattaching for about 6 hours. This can dramatically increase the rate of transmission of the nerve cells — therefore making it easier to both form and retrieve memories.
Similar to the point above, the neurons are the critical players in the function of memory — so keeping them in good working order is key for optimising the process of memory formation.
Alzheimer's disease is a condition involving a widespread loss of neurons in the brain — with the main side-effect being memory loss.
There are a lot of nootropics designed to support neuronal function. One of the best ones you’ll find is a fungus called lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus). This fungus protects the neurons through anti-inflammatory support, but even more so through its unique ability to increase nerve growth factor (NGF) — which is one of the main neurochemicals in the brain that drive the creation of new nerve cells.
When our neurons become damaged or lost over time, NGF is responsible for signaling the body to begin building new neurons in their place. Without it, our memory will gradually begin to decline.
The final mechanism we’re going to discuss for enhancing memory formation is through a neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine. This compound serves as the primary neurotransmitter involved with the formation and retrieval of memories.
We can use Alzheimer's disease as a good example for this condition as well. Patients with this disorder are often found to have problems with the amount of acetylcholine in the brain — resulting in poor memory function.
A lot of nootropics marketed as “memory enhancers” use this mechanism to produce their effects on the body.
There are two ways a nootropic can support acetylcholine levels:
There are a lot of nootropics that can exert their effects through each of these mechanisms.
Nootropics are great supplements for optimising memory formation — however, there are a ton of other methods you can employ as well from a behavioural standpoint to support the process of learning and memory.
The most important step is to ensure you’re getting a good night's sleep.
Being sleep deprived has a negative effect on nerve transmission speed, acetylcholine production, and nerve health. It’s wise to ensure you’re getting at least 8 hours of sleep per night to allow adenosine to be removed from the neurons (thus increasing nerve transmission), glial cells to repair damaged neurons, and regenerating lost acetylcholine molecules.
Overall, there are a ton of different techniques you can employ to optimise memory function. The best course of action is to do multiple different techniques at the same time instead of relying on just one or two.
Supplements like those discussed above can go a long way in supporting memory, but it’s even better to combine this with sleep hygiene practices and other methods like adequate hydration and nutrition, and daily exercise to truly optimise the process.
What do you do to support memory formation? Was there anything we missed? Comment below.
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