8 Brain Supplements to Boost Memory

8 Brain Supplements to Boost Memory

Written by Ken Swearengen
Posted January 27, 2014 at 9:08PM

Looking to put the mental edge in your life?

Maybe you're struggling with normal memory problems. Perhaps you want to be more efficient in studying for a test. Or maybe you just need an extra boost to make it to those Jeopardy tryouts.

Whatever the reason, you're not alone in your quest for improved mental capacity. For thousands of years and on every continent, humans have consumed certain herbs to help push their cognition beyond its normal capacity.

From nicotine-using Native Americans to khat-consuming East Africans, our ability to find and use nootropics (the scientific word for smart drugs) in the animal kingdom is unparalleled.

There are thousands of plants and animal parts that have traditionally been used as brain tonics. As we entered the 21st century, most of them have had some kind of scientific study to back up their brain-boosting properties. But some don't have any studies yet, and some have been shown to be ineffective...

A list of all the nootropics on the earth would take weeks to compile and days to read. To make things easier, I've compiled a list of eight of my favorite brain-boosting herbs and supplements, what they do, how they work, and where to find them.

Due to the amount of information here, keep in mind our disclaimer: Nothing I write here should be construed as personal medical advice or instruction. No action should be taken based solely on the contents of this site. Readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health. 

With that out of the way, here are my favorite nootropics...

1) Galantamine: Galantamine is a substance derived from the snowdrop flower and daffodil family. As legend has it, it was responsible for the Greek hero Odysseus' incredibly sharp memory1.

Galantamine works by inhibiting the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter that has been implicated in memory formation and retention). That means there is more of it in your brain to be used for your memory.

The Cochrane Collaboration — a group that analyzes studies to determine their validity and draws conclusions from them — found that galantamine was effective for reducing Alzheimer's symptoms (like memory loss and other cognitive problems) in patients with early to mid progression of the disease2. More recent research has indicated that galantamine may even reduce the chances of death associated with the disease3.

There have been no studies confirming galantamine's effects on healthy individuals; however, I've used galantamine on many occasions in school to help memorize certain test subjects, and it worked pretty well in my opinion.

And considering its use over thousands of years for precisely that problem, I have little doubt as to its effectiveness. I use this version called Galantamind.

2) Celastrus Paniculatus (also known as intellect tree, black oil plant, and climbing staff tree): This is a plant native to India that produces nootropic seeds. It's been used in traditional Indian medicine as a memory enhancer and treatment for upset stomach and headaches.

A few studies have shown cognitive improvements in rats4, and it may even protect against certain toxins that find their way into the brain5.

While the mechanisms for its effectiveness are still not yet understood, it's thought that the seeds of C. Paniculatus work similarly to galantamine in that they help prevent the breakdown of the memory neurotransmitter acetylcholine6.

Personally, I've noticed the seeds are a great way to help me focus and improve my attention. I consume about 10-15 seeds when I need a cognitive boost, and I get my seeds here.

3) Racetams: These are a set of synthetic drugs whose discovery led to the first use of the term "nootropic." The most popular include piracetam, aniracetam, and phenylpiracetam. Piracetam is the original prototype — all other racetams are derived from it in one way or another.

Piracetam7 has been shown to increase oxygen levels and glucose (primary fuel of the brain) processing in the brain (a good thing!). It also has been shown to slightly improve cognitive function in healthy adults and significantly improve it in adults exhibiting serious mental decline.

Aniracetam acts similarly to piracetam, though evidence suggests it operates more closely to galantamine in that it's able to encourage the production of memory-helper acetylcholine; it's also been touted as a mild stimulant8.

Phenylpiracetam is the only one of the three that I've tried. Studies show it's effective in improving cognitive decline and may even promote cognitive performance in healthy adults9.

I noticed a particular motivational stimulant effect, like drinking a very strong cup of coffee but with fewer side effects and much less "mind racing." I use this brand by Smart Drugs for Thought.

4) Centrophenoxine: Another drug that's been useful in treating Alzheimer's symptoms, centrophenoxine is a chemical synthesized from a substance — Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) — found in fish. Centrophenoxine acts as a delivery mechanism for DMAE10:

DMAE is a compound that is known as a mind health compound. It does this by reducing buildup of what is known as the 'age pigment', which impairs cognitive function and is implicated in the cognitive decline with age. It can also increase levels of the compound involved with memory, acetylcholine.

It can also protect neurons and other cells from harmful effects of certain types of oxidation by embedding itself in the structure of the cell and acting as an anti-oxidant, as well as sustaining metabolic processes in the body through a process known as 'methyl donation'.

Centrophenoxine is simply a version of DMAE that is more readily absorbed by the body. I've taken it for about 3 weeks so far, and I have noticed a significant improvement in how clear my thinking has been — much less brain fog.

Smart Drugs for Thought also makes centrophenoxine, which you can find here.

5) Alpha GPC: This is a substance found naturally in the brain and in milk, and it happens to be a natural source of choline, which is the precursor necessary for the memory chemical acetylcholine. It more easily crosses the blood-brain barrier than other sources of choline — which means it's more easily utilized by the brain.

When combined with caffeine, it's been shown to improve attention while under stress11, and there is evidence that shows cognitive and memory-boosting effects in both healthy individuals and those with dementia12.

Alpha GPC (I prefer this brand by Douglas Labs) has provided another big boost to my working memory. I've found it works great when combined with centrophenoxine.

6) Caffeine: I bet you didn't know caffeine is the most consumed cognitive enhancer in the world.

While most Americans use it to counteract the effects of their constant sleep deprivation (keep your electronics out of the bedroom!), it can also enhance working memory in extroverts. (Why not introverts? No one knows yet, but they theorize it has to do with certain brain chemicals that are higher in extroverts than introverts)13. It may also reduce damage done due to lack of oxygen (due to things like strokes)14.

My favorite source of caffeine? Green tea, which contains much more body-protecting antioxidants than coffee and black tea.

7) L-theanine: This is a chemical derived from tea leaves. Buddhist monks have long used green tea as a stimulant to help with meditation.

While tea has the caffeine to keep you awake, the L-theanine acts as a counterweight to the caffeine's stimulatory effects to keep it from becoming overwhelming. Basically, you get the focusing and cognitive benefits of caffeine, but L-theanine helps take "the edge" off caffeine's potency so you can concentrate more easily and be less distracted.

It's only recently that L-theanine has been used as a supplement, mainly to support relaxation and anti-anxiety. I've found it pairs well with a cup of coffee for the reasons I mentioned above — sometimes you need the dose of caffeine coffee provides without all the mind-racing that often goes along with it.

Studies have found that when paired with caffeine, it can increase accuracy and attention, improve reaction time, and improve attention in the face of distracting stimuli.

Enzymatic is my L-theanine supply of choice.

8) Ginseng: A traditional Asian herb that's been used for thousands of years, ginseng has been shown to improve blood flow to the brain16. Increased blood flow delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the brain, which keep it sharp and healthy — both for people with Alzheimer's and those without. Studies have found ginseng can also improve memory for both groups17.

In addition, studies in animals have found that the main active chemical in ginseng — gintonin — was shown to reduce amyloid beta production and its toxic effect on cells18.

Ginseng consumption has been shown to improve reaction time, produce anti-depressant effects, and enhance learning capacity19. There are also some studies that show it may have a synergistic effect, which increases short-term memory and reaction time when combined with gingko biloba20.

You can order Food Science's Ginseng caps here.

While I use these supplements myself, a word of caution is warranted: A few of them (mainly the synthetic ones) have only recently been discovered and therefore have had few studies done on their safety and side effects.

I'm a young, healthy adult, and I am comfortable enough with the research that I've done to see the benefits outweigh the risks for myself. You should always consult with your doctor first, especially if you have any medical problems, past or present.

Used correctly, nootropics can be an amazing brain-boosting addition for many people. Use them wisely, and use them safely.

Yours in health,


Ken Swearengen

P.S. Do you have any questions, concerns, or comments about this article or any other health topic? Please share questions/comments via Twitter @HealthwireKen, or "Like" our HealthWire Facebook page and post your message on our wall.


[1] http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/podcast/CIIEcompounds/transcripts/galantamine.asp

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12137632

[3] http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/253818.php

[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9259008

[5] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15234755

[6] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20645820

[7] http://examine.com/supplements/Piracetam/#summary3-0

[8] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11597608

[9] http://examine.com/supplements/Phenylpiracetam/#summary3-0

[10] http://examine.com/supplements/DMAE/

[11] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21156078

[12] http://examine.com/supplements/Alpha-GPC/#summary3-7

[13] http://examine.com/supplements/Caffeine/#summary4-8

[14] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23035103

[15] http://examine.com/supplements/Theanine/

[16] http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/condition/alzheimers-disease

[17] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11140327

[18] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22543851

[19] http://examine.com/supplements/Panax+ginseng/#summary5-1

[20] Ibid.


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