Magazine article Nutrition Health Review

Maximizing Your Brain's Performance

Magazine article Nutrition Health Review

Maximizing Your Brain's Performance

Article excerpt

Brain-boosting supplements, puzzle games, or good ol' exercise and a nice book--Which of these can help us to optimize how well we focus, solve problems, and remember information? Here, we examine the evidence and discuss the best ways to boost your brain.

NOOTROPICS: DO THEY WORK?

A nootropic drug is a substance that's taken to enhance how the brain functions. Proponents of nootropics claim that they enhance cognitive efficiency, focus, and memory. Unlike a prescription drug that would have the same effect, such as Ritalin or Adderall, fans of nootropics are attracted to claims that nootropics are nonhabit-forming and aren't stimulants. Nootropics emerged onto the market in the 1970s and are still being researched for their safety and efficacy. Many nootropic products that can be purchased online are not approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the FDA does not evaluate dietary supplements for approval. The exact ways in which some of these drugs enhance brain function is still unclear, but there is some existing evidence of their benefit.

The first nootropic drug put on the market was piracetam in 1971. Research on piracetam has shown it to have diverse physiological effects, which researchers theorize is due to its ability to restore fluidity to cell membranes. Theoretically, in restoring fluidity to the cell membrane, piracetam optimizes the performance of our cells. Additional studies have shown that piracetam influences membrane fluidity specifically when normal fluidity is compromised. This decrease in cell membrane fluidity is often seen during aging, which suggests that piracetam might provide benefits for us as we advance in age. Studies conducted on aged human brains support the existence of this restorative effect, and a separate study including patients with Alzheimer's disease showed increased fluidity in the hippocampal cell membranes. It is speculated that this increased membrane fluidity can aid in neurotransmission, neuroplasticity, and neuroprotection. (1)

In one study, patients with age-associated memory impairment were given a high dose of piracetam, a moderate dose, or a placebo, and were enrolled in memory training to observe the effects, if any, that piracetam would have on memory. The patients receiving the highest dose of piracetam saw the greatest improvement in their scores, and the patients on the moderate dose saw greater improvements in their scores than the placebo group. (2) Further, studies have shown that piracetam has the potential to prevent cognitive deterioration. In one such study, patients with early Alzheimer's disease were given either piracetam or a placebo and were assessed using 14 different cognitive tests. After one year, no improvement occurred in either group, but patients taking piracetam deteriorated on only one of the 14 tests, while patients taking the placebo deteriorated on nine out of the 14. (3)

Many other studies exist on an extensive list of nootropics, but many of these studies haven't been conducted directly on humans or are too small to establish steadfast evidence of efficacy. Many of these studies conclude by calling for more extensive research, not only on their potential benefits but also their adverse effects, as many nootropics come with a variety of reported side effects. (4)

While the concept of cognition-enhancing drugs for healthy individuals is an exciting development to monitor for the future, it's clear that much more research needs to be conducted on nootropics before they can be widely and safely recommended. However, there are several science-backed ways that healthy adults can improve their cognitive performance without these supplements.

EFFECTS OF EXERCISE ON NEUROPLASTICITY

A review of studies, written in 2011, discussed the benefits exercise can have on cognition in healthy adults. According to the review, convergent evidence from studies conducted on both humans and animals shows that physical activity facilitates neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections. …

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