How Do They Work?

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There are many different nootropics, explaining the mechanism of action of each individual one would be a very long article. However, there are some general pathways that should be described. Some mechanisms are so new and exciting that they are not yet fully understood, but offer a fascinating area of research for scientists as the future capabilities are literally unlimited.

1. Directly modulating neurotransmitters: as discussed earlier, the brain is made up of a huge network of neurons with all signals being mediated through synapses between different neurons. Neurotransmitters determine the output of that particular pathway e.g. mood, attention, appetite, sleep, arousal, memory etc. By changing the amount of a particular neurotransmitter, the action of that pathway can be excited or inhibited. So for instance, certain nootropics can act to increase the amount of Glutamate (an excitatory neurotransmitter), meaning more of it can bind to receptors and so a large excitatory signal can propagate. This causes a general stimulatory effect around the body. One of the more interesting mechanisms is that of the Ampakines. Many Racetams are thought to act upon the AMPA receptors; Glutamate is one neurotransmitter which activates the AMPA receptor. Stimulation of the AMPA receptor is known to increase alertness and attention span as well as facilitate learning and memory. By simulating Glutamate we are creating our own versions of neurotransmitters able to bind and activate AMPA receptors, with further tweaking we can determine the strength and duration of signal. We have also found nootropics which modulate the receptor, meaning that we can effectively determine how sensitive the AMPA receptor is to our bodies own natural Glutamate, this is much more effective as we do not need to create anything that binds directly to the receptor, we simply tell the receptors how sensitive they should be to endogenous Glutamate. Ampakines are so effective and well tolerated by the body that they are currently being investigated by the US military funded by DARPA. Modafinil is actually currently being used by the US military to increase the effectiveness of their soldiers. Ampakines unlike earlier stimulants (caffeine, ADHD medication) do not have the common unwanted side effects such as addiction and sleeplessness.

2. Increase oxygen supply: Each cell in our body requires a constant supply of Oxygen, this is especially true for the high work rate of neuronal cells. As discussed previously, when neurons are deprived of oxygen (hypoxia), even for a short time, they begin to die. Neuronal death is essentially brain damage, and as little as 7 minutes hypoxia can kill a human. When the brain is starved of oxygen partially, the symptoms include, confusion, lack of attention, concentration and coordination. New thought processes are harder to complete and memories harder to be processed and stored. The complete opposite is true when there is excess oxygen supply to the brain. For this reason some nootropics actively cause a neuronal abundance of oxygen to all parts of the brain, allowing for a global increase in general cognition.

3. Re-growing neurons and neuron protection: The study of neurons re-growing has been under much debate until relatively recently. The consensus has been that neurons do not re-grow and form new links. This is why it is almost impossible to cure someone of neuronal death such as brain damage. It is perfectly natural for neurons to die, and as more die during old age you essentially become senile, with a deterioration of mental function. However, recently there have been huge advances in both genetics and neuropharmacology as scientists have successfully shown the re-growth of neurons. One breakthrough has shown that the expression of certain genes can stimulate neurons to re-grow, and can even stimulate neighboring neurons to fill the gap. Certain nootropics have been shown to have this amazing quality, and this is one of the amazing properties owing to their huge success in treating and reversing the symptoms of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

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