Mental cognition has to do with how our brains understand and process input. How is it that you know things? Where do awareness and perception come from? What about judgment, reasoning, and intuition? These are all cognitive abilities that we develop over time and that allows us to think, communicate, and interact with the world around us in productive ways.

Many of us have wistfully wished that we had greater cognitive abilities, or we’ve noticed our abilities wane over time. As we get older, it can become more difficult to absorb and process information. Why is it that some people seem to lag while others remain sharp as a tack? Does it have to do with diet, exercise, and healthy living? Is it related to exercising our brains through learning and trying new things, or participating in brain games and mental gymnastics?

Or could you take a pill that makes you smarter? Nootropics could be the answer we’re all looking for when it comes to preserving and even enhancing cognitive abilities. What are they and how do they work? Here’s what you should know, whether you’re just a little slow and forgetful or you’re concerned about hereditary diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

What are Nootropics?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines nootropic as “a substance that enhances cognition and memory and facilitates learning”. In practical application, nootropics include drugs that are used to improve cognitive ability, not only in patients dealing with cognitive impairment related to degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases, but also in healthy individuals looking to improve the ability to learn, remember, and respond to sensory input.

To date, the FDA has approved a number of nootropic drugs, some specifically geared toward treating existing cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s and other diseases, and some that are approved for use in healthy patients, as well. FDA-approved nootropics include drugs like donepezil, galantamine HBr, memantine, modafinil, and rivastigmine tartrate, just for example, many of which were initially developed to treat diseases, but may now be available for other purposes.

However, there are also daily supplements on the market that require no FDA testing or approval. These generally include ingredients like DHA omega-3, L-Glutamine, Phosphatidylserine, and so on that are known to improve certain brain functions.

How do Nootropics Enhance Cognitive Ability?

We’ve all heard of drugs, ranging from caffeine to amphetamines, that improve focus, retention, and other cognitive abilities. Some are safe and legal and others are less so. Nootropics are drugs or supplements specifically developed for the purpose of boosting brain function.

Donepezil, for example, has gone through a variety of federally funded, randomized trials, including testing of airline pilots using flight simulators that showed the drug is capable of improving performance in healthy individuals. Modafinil, which is used to promote wakefulness, has also been found to improve cognitive performance in studies.

Supplements like omega-3 fatty acids, which our bodies need for a variety of reasons, have been found to help with conditions like ADHD, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, improving learning and memory functions. Nootropic drugs and supplements may improve synaptic function, increase alertness and focus, and improve overall cognitive abilities in a variety of ways.

Which Nootropics are Right for You?

As a consumer, you need to be careful which nootropics you purchase. While FDA approval isn’t the end-all-be-all of effective nootropics, you also don’t want to waste money on a lot of hype. Understanding ingredients, reading verifiable reviews, seeking products backed by scientific trials, and looking for money back guarantees are all great ways to find the best products and gain the greatest benefits. It’s always a good idea to discuss new health regimens with your primary physician before beginning.