Nutritionally reviewed by Diana Lee, RD.
The rise in popularity of supplements – and specifically nootropic (cognition-enhancing) supplements – has created an increase in demand among students of all ages for nootropics for studying, focus, and memory. Stimulants like caffeine and the prescription drug Adderall (off-label use) have long been the go-to remedies for long nights in the library, but nowadays there are compounds with much more nuanced effects that are arguably more effective, and that don’t have the famous caffeine “crash” or negative side effects of amphetamine salts. Here we’ll examine the mechanisms, effects, and research behind some of the best nootropics for studying, focus, and memory.
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Introduction – The Neuroscience of Studying, Focus, and Memory
The primary neurotransmitters involved in focus and attention are acetylcholine, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Acetylcholine enhances focus and inhibits distraction by directly increasing the neural “signal” in sensory regions like the prefrontal cortex. Dopamine is responsible for motivation and telling the brain what to focus on, and is elevated when solving a problem or learning something new. Norepinephrine – or noradrenaline – acts alongside dopamine to promote wakefulness, motivation, and vigilance, regulate cognitive function and reaction time, and mediate attention1.
For the most part, science still doesn’t know the role of specific neurotransmitters in memory formation, and memory formation itself seems to be an extremely complex process that is not yet fully understood2. Thankfully, we do seem to know the regions of the brain involved in memory and information retrieval, we know that faster communication between neurotransmitters and neurons improves processing speed and information retrieval, and we can simply look at research on nootropics and drugs that show promising results in terms of the downstream effects of improved focus, memory, and learning, without necessarily knowing or needing to know the specific mechanism(s) involved. This may actually be a better way of backing into a better neuroscientific understanding of memory formation, in that we can investigate the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of efficacious drugs to arrive at hypotheses about the neurological processes at play.
We do also know that the destruction of acetylcholine neurons plays a key role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, a disease that targets short-term memory formation early on, and that NMDA receptors, a special type of glutamate receptor, are the molecular substrate for neurons to develop enhanced connectivity with each other, which underlies memory formation. Most of the things on the list below act on acetylcholine and NMDA receptors.
The Best Nootropics for Studying, Focus, and Memory
Thus, in terms of our selection criteria for the best nootropics for studying, focus, and memory, we’re aiming for enhancing acetylcholine, dopamine, and noradrenaline, and the following specific effects:
- Enhanced memory and learning
- Better recall
- Improved attentiveness
- Faster neurotransmission
- Quicker cognitive processing
- Mental clarity
Here are some nootropics that can do just that. For all of these, whenever possible, I’m aiming for Double Wood, Pure Nootropics, Jarrow, Nutricost, and NOW Foods as vendors of choice. They all have a proven track record of providing the highest-quality research-backed ingredients with analytical testing. For a while now, these brands have been the antidote to the issues that have plagued the supplement industry and given it a bad reputation – label inaccuracy, questionable purity and safety, and lack of efficacy. In short, make sure you’re buying from a trusted seller and make sure you know what you’re getting.
1. Panax Ginseng
Panax Ginseng is a plant that has been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is also referred to as Korean ginseng, Asian ginseng, red ginseng, and “true” ginseng. Extracts of both the leaves and the root are used therapeutically.
The word “Panax” comes from the Greek words for “all-healing.”3 This seems appropriate, as Panax ginseng has evidence of specifically enhancing learning, memory, focus, energy, well-being, libido, and calmness. Most of these are the precise effects we’re looking for in a nootropic supplement to help with studying. Panax ginseng also appears to have ameliorative effects on depression, inflammation, fatigue, obesity, cancer, and cognitive decline due to aging4–12. A study in 2011 looked specifically at Panax ginseng’s effects on ADHD in children and saw significant improvements in attentiveness and a reduction in hyperactivity13,14.
Studies on Panax ginseng’s cognitive benefits have used about a 400mg daily dose. Note that the leaf extracts seem to be more stimulatory, while root extracts seem to be more calming, but many ginseng supplements simply combine the two. Be sure to look for a Panax ginseng supplement that is standardized for ginsenoside content, the bioactive compound in ginseng.
2. TeaCrine® (Theacrine)
I’ve reviewed the details of TeaCrine® in another post. It’s a patented version of theacrine, a purine alkoloid found naturally in the kucha tea leaf. TeaCrine® is essentially a milder, “cleaner,” longer-acting, arguably healthier caffeine. It exerts its effects via modulation of dopamine and adenosine receptors. It does not affect the cardiovascular system and does not seem to possess the withdrawals, “crash,” and tolerance issues usually seen with caffeine.
TeaCrine® provides a mild boost in energy, mood, and focus that lasts for about 6-8 hours, which is great if you’re planning for an all-day study session. Because of its long half-life, it’s probably best to take TeaCrine® early in the day.
3. Dynamine® (Methylliberine)
Similar to TeaCrine®, Dynamine®, is another cousin of caffeine without caffeine’s negative side effects. Dynamine® is basically a shorter-acting, harder-hitting theacrine. Its effects only last for a couple hours. As such, it may be perfect for an evening study session where you still want to be able to fall asleep easily afterward.
4. Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR)
Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR) is simply the amino acid carnitine with an acetyl group attached. ALCAR enhances acetylcholine, a primary neurotransmitter involved in focus, memory, and learning.
Many studies have shown ALCAR has the ability to improve memory, learning, mental clarity, and processing speed15–26. Note though that these effects may only apply in cases of cognitive impairment, brain injury, or cognitive decline due to aging. The jury is still out on ALCAR’s neuromodulatory effects on cognitively-healthy individuals. Two studies have shown specific improvements in attention and reductions in hyperactivity in children with ADHD27,28.
Phosphatidylserine is a fat-soluble compound found naturally in the brain. It is required for cognitive function and healthy nerve cell membranes. Specifically, phosphatidylserine is necessary for neuron cell membranes to be able to release neurotransmitters into the brain, a process known as exocytosis29.
Recent research on phosphatidylserine has shown it possesses neuroprotective, neuropotentiating, and antineurodegenerative properties, and that supplementation of exogenous phosphatidylserine reliably improves memory, mood, learning, cognition, focus, processing speed, and overall cognitive function29–34. One study looked specifically at phosphatidylserine’s effects on children with ADHD and found that it significantly improved inattention, impulsivity, and short-term memory35.
Oxiracetam, part of the racetam family, is a more potent version of the base Piracetam. Oxiracetam is structurally similar to Aniracetam, but is said to be more stimulatory. Oxiracetam doesn’t seem to affect mood, but anecdotal evidence abounds for it improving mental processing speed and analytical thinking, making it great for studying.
Oxiracetam has clinical evidence of enhancing learning, memory, and cognition, primarily by augmenting cholinergic and glutamatergic pathways36–42. It also seems to possess neuroprotective and antineurodegenerative properties, particularly in cases of dementia43–45. Its half-life of 6 hours should give you plenty of time to complete your task(s)46.
Fasoracetam is one of the newest racetams on the scene. It specifically activates the metabotropic glutamate receptor (MGluR) and enhances the uptake of acetylcholine and GABA, improving cognition and symptoms of anxiety47–49. A study in 2018 showed significant improvement by Fasoracetam for participants with ADHD50.
8. CDP-Choline (Citicoline)
Again, choline is natural and necessary in the brain, and is a precursor of acetylcholine. CDP-choline (also called citicoline) converts to both choline and cytidine. Alpha-GPC is another cognition-promoting form of choline, and should be interchangeable with CDP-choline. Like phosphatidylserine, it appears to be potently neuroprotective and antineurodegenerative.
Supplementation of CDP-choline has been shown to improve focus, memory, learning, visual acuity, and cognition in both healthy and cognitively-impaired humans51–61. CDP-choline may also upregulate dopamine and acetylcholine receptors62. It’s also usually recommended to supplement choline alongside racetams, as racetams are cholinergic.
Sulbutiamine is two thiamine molecules and a sulfur group. Sulbutiamine has evidence of enhancing synaptic transmission and improving learning, memory, and vigilance63,64. Research also suggests that sulbutiamine modulates the dopaminergic, cholinergic, and gluatmatergic transmission systems65.
Anecdotal evidence abounds for sulbutiamine being anti-fatigue and enhancing focus, cognition, energy, memory, and learning.
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) is an herb used extensively in Ayurveda. Bacopa is an adaptogen, meaning it attenuates the effects of mental and physical stress on the body. In terms of boosting memory, its primary mechanism appears to be enhancing the communication between neurons. It modulates acetylcholine as well66.
Bacopa has been shown to potently enhance memory and promote neuronal dendrite growth, but only after at least 4 weeks of supplementation67–74. As such, Bacopa may not offer acute benefits, but it deserves a spot on the list for its clear benefits after chronic supplementation, and because anecdotal evidence abounds praising its efficacy.
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