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  • Writer's pictureIsaac Furlani


Updated: Oct 31


Nootropics are the bleeding edge of mental performance.

This is the field being closely watched by those who want to squeeze the utmost of human cognitive potential; those whose careers heavily revolve around doing what Peter Drucker (the godfather of modern management) named ‘knowledge work’; these people seek to excel far above their peers, floating up to the top of the pack.

Now, if you would like an unfair advantage over your peers, or even in your industry, then nootropics are perhaps a very handy tool to upgrade your tool-belt.

Many of the world’s best known thinkers, inventors, founders, CEO’s, and scientists have been documented admitting nootropic use. In fact, the USA, Russia, and China have been known to pour millions into researching them to give their research scientists and highly specialised military forces an edge over their competitors.

During the height of Silicon Valley, it was considered an inside secret and cultural norm for developers and founders to be using at least one nootropic.

But what are they?

‘Nootropics’ are simply molecules that support mental performance - found in foods, plants, vitamins, minerals, and man-made chemicals. They are generally supported by scientific empirical evidence, and sometimes backed by thousands of years of ancestral medicine.

Many nootropics can naturally be found in foods that we regularly consume, with some produced by our body, and others out in the wilderness of the plant kingdom. There are also now several newer nootropics designed by neuroscientists & biochemists, and aptly named ‘smart-drugs’.

But regardless of their labelling, they all have one key benefit, to make you smarter(er).

Most have been shown to increase your mental bandwidth, your thought processing speeds, and your recollection, among many other testing markers. Whilst many of the formal tests used are highly controlled psychometric or neuroimaging tests, you really won’t need a lab test to feel the powerful effects of nootropics on your brain and daily performance.

In a world that's growing increasingly competitive, and at a rapid rate, these are the new bleeding edge for those seeking an advantage above their competitors (or their colleagues). With the coming age of technology, brute strength is out, brain performance is in; it’s a true superpower.

Some of these nootropics are common and fairly well known to help improve cognition, like coffee, avocado and fish. But that's only brushing the top of one very large iceberg.


How they work

Nootropics generally work via 6 methods:

  • Cerebral blood flow / oxygenation

  • Neuronal metabolism

  • Neurotransmitter modulation

  • Cellular processes

  • Neurotrophic factors

  • Brainwave frequency

Neuronal metabolism

Our brain requires a very hefty amount of energy to keep running. In fact, roughly 20% of the calories you burn every day are spent just thinking. Your brain chews up a lot of power considering it’s only ~2% of your total body weight (for a 70kg human) [r].

Neurons are constantly using energy to maintain, repair, or replace themselves, as well as sending & receiving electrochemical signals to/from surrounding neurons.

All this requires energy, and lots of it, so facilitating this can lead to better signalling and healthier neurons.

Which can be done by:

  • Improving the health of mitochondria within neurons

  • Helping transport fuel sources into the cells (i.e. fatty acids, ketones, or glucose)

  • Providing key nutrients like sodium, magnesium, calcium, etc

  • Increasing insulin sensitivity

  • Providing alternate fuel sources like ketones

If neurons aren’t supplied a ready source of nutrients and fuel, they will likely die or suffer damage, leading to mental fatigue, brain fog, and eventually cognitive decline and degeneration; there are also many links between mental illnesses and cellular dysfunction.

Cerebral blood flow / oxygenation If you’ve ever stood up too quickly, you’ll know the exact effect of limiting blood flow to the brain; it’s the exact opposite of performance enhancing.

Nutrients and oxygen are delivered to the brain via blood - and cerebrospinal fluid.

Increasing blood flow can facilitate improved neuronal health, functioning, activity, and growth.

The increased blood supply can even be localised to certain areas, which may increase the activity in that area, as well as the behaviour associated with that areas primary function (eg. the hippocampi are associated with long-term memory, so mildly increasing hippocampal blood flow may enhance memory consolidation and retrieval). Generally speaking though, most nootropics that improve blood flow do so across the entire cortex, with only a minority showing localised blood flow improvements.

Neurotransmitter modulation

Neurotransmitters are the chemical signal between neurons.

Certain neurons only use certain chemicals to relay their signal, and enact their relevant thoughts or behaviours. Neurons that use dopamine for their signal, are often related with rewarding based behaviours, or rather, behaving based on the expectation of a reward.

Increasing or lowering the prevalence, synthesis, or abundance or a certain neurotransmitter can help enhance the behaviours, functions, and processes relevant to it.

Caffeine increases dopamine, which is why it often helps with motivation.

Generally speaking, there are 6 primary neurotransmitters, with a few associations for each:

  • Glutamate

  • The most abundant neurotransmitter. The ‘ON’ switch for neuronal activity.

  • Acetylcholine

  • Learning, analysis, cognition, memory.

  • Dopamine

  • Expecting and seeking reward, motivation, mood, pro-survival behaviour (hunting, eating, status seeking, sex, etc).

  • Serotonin

  • Relaxation, contentment, happiness, and satisfaction.

  • Gamma Amino-Butyric Acid (GABA)

  • Relaxation, sedation, inhibition, sleep, anti-arousal.

  • Oxytocin

  • Connectedness, closeness, love, bonding, attachment, nurturing.

Realistically, there are well over 100 neurotransmitters, with new discoveries still occurring.

Brainwave frequency

In a very broad sense, large portions of electrical activity across - and between - areas of the brain can be grouped into pulses, akin to a Mexican wave of neurons firing. These pulses generally happen at different rates, which can be detected via an electroencephalograph (swimming cap that measures electrical activity). The rate of pulses is then converted as a frequency, and then measured in Hertz (Hz).

Different Hz have been associated with different brain (mood & psychological) states.

Not to say they cause the brain states, but that they are a reflection of what is happening within, and for the purpose of this article, can serve as a useful insight into which nootropics promote which frequencies and their associated states.

Here are the most common frequencies and their associated states.

  • Γ - Gamma - (γ)

  • Heightened perception

  • Problem solving

  • Learning

  • High level processing

  • Concentration

  • Β - Beta - (β)

  • Fully awake

  • Alert consciousness

  • Mentally aroused

  • Excitement

  • Α - Alpha - (α)

  • Light meditation

  • Relaxed

  • Insightful

  • Creative

  • Θ - Theta - (θ)

  • Lower consciousness

  • Dreams

  • Deep meditation

  • Insight

  • Creativity

  • Δ - Delta - (δ)

  • Deep sleep

  • No body awareness

  • Healing

  • Dreamless sleep

Cellular processes

This includes neuroprotective functions, chemical messages sent along neurons, as well as the healthy systematic destruction and replacement of inefficient (broken) cells.

Food is generally the best source for chemicals/nutrients that facilitate and improve neurologic chemical processes. Many of these are essential, natural, and occur in cyclic fashion within the brain. Most issues, however, arise from a deficiency of nutrients, but may also arise by the inclusion of toxic chemicals that hinder these cellular processes (e.g. alcohol, gluten, sugar, other phytotoxins).

An example: Sodium, calcium, and potassium are all required for a neuron to send an electrochemical signal down towards another neuron; from the nucleus, down the axon, to the synapse. These chemicals are essential for the signal to be communicated, and without them, thoughts would not exist, nor muscular contractions.

Anatomy of a Neuron

Image sourced: Queensland Brain Institute

Increasing neurotrophic factors

I’ve a huge desire to gain the skills of accelerated learning, memorising anything with ease, or constantly having new ideas forming through my mind. This would afford an unsung advantage in nearly any environment or situation, for nearly every living creature on earth. Yet these all require (and cause) new connections between neurons, and often the birth of entirely new neurons [r].

So, facilitating this literal brain growth should be considered very desirable to anyone.

The body uses neurotrophic factors to modulate this growth. Neurotrophic factors are endogenous (produced by the body) chemicals that cause the birth of new neurons (neurogenesis), new connections between neurons, as well as increases in dendrites and the number of neuron supporting cells (microglia) [r][r][r][r][r].

The primary neurotrophins:

  • Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)

  • Nerve Growth Factor 1 (NGF)

  • Neurotrophin-3 (NT3)

  • Neurotrophin-4 (NT4)

BDNF stands out within the list of neurotrophic factors. It’s commonly referred to as ‘Miracle-grow brain fertiliser’ in popular science. Increases in BDNF can lead to a restructuring of your brain, which heavily facilitates learning and creativity, as well as breakthrough thoughts and ideas. It does this not only by creating new neurons, but by heavily facilitating the connection between neurons, which is how new thoughts, ideas, and memories are stored, created, and updated over time.


Sources of Nootropics

Nootropics are generally either natural or synthetic.

Many natural nootropics are found within the body already (endogenous nootropics), and need to be ‘unlocked’ via gene expression, while the remaining natural nootropics are found in foods or plant material. Gene expression can be activated by as simple a method as opening a window to allow sun into the room, going for a short bout of exercise, or having a nice cold shower.

Synthetic nootropics, however, are more convenient, and yet, quite often significantly more powerful in comparison to naturally derived nootropics, and thus precautions are required when researching or using any nootropics, but especially synthetic nootropics.

Nootropics are generally sourced from one of five areas:

Food sources:

The best foods for optimal brain health include nutrients that our brain really thrives on. More specifically, nutrients that are used to create, and grow brain tissue, and to facilitate neurochemical processes.

A lot of study within the last two decades has gone into this topic, especially with the rapidly growing rate of neural diseases such as Alzheimer's, MS, ALS, and dementia.


Many studies have shown us that foods containing a fat called DHA (an Omega-3 fat) are especially beneficial for our brains [r][r][r]. In fact, DHA is required when our body first begins forming our central nervous system, and brains are also composed of this fat. It’s an odd fact, but in your brain roughly 60% of its dry weight is fat [r]. A great example of some foods that provide this nutrient are salmon, sardines, anchovies, grass-fed beef fat, or avocado.

Further, seafood, which is very high in Omega-3 fats, has been consistently linked to lower rates of depression, suicide, and cognitive impairment [r][r].

Food for blood supply

Foods with the ability to increase the blood supply to our brain are also very beneficial for growth, repair, increased learning ability, and removing brain fog.

The increase in cerebral blood flow (CBF) means more oxygen, nutrients and energy can be supplied to the brain for better performance. So, if you’re expecting that big brain-engine to really fire on all cylinders, then you best make certain it’s getting all the fuel it needs.

A great food for increasing CBF is blueberries, or as they are sometimes cringingly called ‘brain-berries’. These berries contain a chemical flavonoid called anthocyanin, which has also been found to improve episodic & working memory, as well as learning [r][r][r][r].

Another great reason to consume ‘brain foods’ is that many of these foods have been shown to increase levels of a fantastic chemical called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). This chemical is like steroids for neurons. It’s listed in the above section ‘Neurotrophins’.

Anything that increases BDNF can generally be considered a nootropic due to BDNFs essential role in the brain, and the variety of effects it has on cognition, mood, and learning. Largely, because it helps spur our brain to grow new neurons and connections between neurons.

Ketogenic diet

It’s worth noting that a ketogenic, very low carb, or carnivore diet will gift you the largest and most noticeable boost in brain power, with the lowest investment of time, money, or physical effort; however, it does require willpower and mental effort to begin [r][r][r].

When you’re on a diet that heavily restricts carbohydrates, your body will adapt to burning fat as its primary fuel source, and this is known as being in ketosis, or a ketogenic state.

However, your brain can’t run on fats like muscle can, and so as you head into ketosis, your liver will turn some of that fat into ketone-bodies for the brain, which is known as ketogenesis; these ketones are like premium fuel for neurons.

Interestingly, ketones are heavily preferred by neurons because they ‘perform’ better whilst metabolising this cleaner energy source, as compared to our other main fuel source carbohydrates (glucose). Further, ketones promote neural growth, which means far greater learning, memory, and recollection [r][r][r][r][r][r].

Additionally, ketogenesis has been shown to effectively help symptoms of Alzheimer's, and has been used to cure epilepsy for over 100 years [r][r][r][r][r][r].

Fortunately, being in a state of ketosis can easily be achieved simply by fasting for 24-30hrs (with further hours increasing your state of ketosis), or by consuming less than 60g of carbs per day for 2-3 continuous days (neither are recommended without professional supervision).

Ketones beneficial cognitive effects:

  • BDNF levels increase

  • Neuroprotection

  • Significantly lessen symptoms of Alzheimer's, dementia

  • Effective treatment for epilepsy

  • Anti-inflammatory

  • Improved working memory

  • Increased verbal memory

  • Improved cognitive performance

  • Limits effects of ageing, neurodegeneration and carcinogenesis

  • Increase antioxidant levels

  • Protect against oxidative stress

  • [r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r]

Fasting But sometimes the simplest way to improve your brain is simply by omission.

Oddly enough, caloric restriction, and more significantly, fasting, will promote a range of beneficial effects on the brain.

Fasting effects on the brain:

  • Promote neuroplasticity [r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r].

  • Increase BDNF levels [r][r][r][r].

  • Improve pain tolerance [r][r].

  • Improve cognitive performance [r][r][r][r][r][r].

  • Lower anxiety levels [r][r].

  • Lower neuronal inflammation [r][r][r].

  • Improve sense of taste and smell [r].

  • Improves metabolism and brain energy efficiency [r][r].

  • Induce neuronal autophagy (replacing under-performing cells with new ones) [r][r][r].

  • Lowers risk of cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer's, Autism, and Multiple Sclerosis [r][r][r][r].

  • Effectively treats epilepsy [r][r].

The benefits of fasting go far beyond the brain, to improving areas like digestion, energy, heart, muscle, stress, body fat levels, slowing ageing, and many others. I would suggest reading further if this interests you. Additionally, intermittent fasting can be an easy stepping stone towards longer routines of 24hr+ fasting.

However, despite this overwhelming body of evidence, some meta-studies find a negative effect on cognition [r].

Avoiding detractors

Alarmingly, there are often things we eat every day that damage our brains, very slowly, but surely.

It took me years to learn that some foods, while seemingly healthy (and tasty), are actually really damaging. For over a decade I used to drink a milk based protein shake (whey protein isolate) every day - sometimes up to three times a day! It honestly took me that long to realise the lactose in the dairy was giving me acne, brain fog, lethargy, and eventually, crippling heartburn. The pain from the heartburn would physically shut me down, unable to think or talk when the pain hit, and if I was asleep it would instantly wake me up, ruining my sleep several times each night.

There are things like sugar, gluten, phytonutrients, and dairy proteins that can cause inflammation and auto-immune diseases within our bodies and brains. These are simple things to remove from your diet in order to see a noticeable improvement. It may be worth trialling a week of removing one of these and being conscious to notice any difference.

Gluten was another for me that would cause horrible brain fog and heart-burn. While I am not coeliac, and you may not be either, every living human is entirely incapable of digesting gluten. Our bodies simply cannot use this protein, and generally it is seen within our body as a foreign object which causes our immune system to attack it. A known cause of many autoimmune diseases is caused by exactly this mechanism. In fact, one of those diseases is caused in large part because the gluten protein looks very similar in molecular structure to our own connective tissue protein (tendons, skin, etc). What can happen is our immune system, with a daily bombardment of gluten, will get the two different proteins confused and eventually learn to attack both. This leads to the body, in essence, attacking itself. So maybe that croissant isn’t such a great idea after all.

But there are plenty of alternatives, and luckily the market is starting to realise this, food companies are sensing where the markets are going, and so they are producing a growing number of gluten free (GF) products. 10 years ago the supermarkets had almost zero gluten free alternatives, but now they all have an entire aisle dedicated to GF options. Progress is slow on a global scale, but eventually people will get the message. Take this chance to make the changes to your own eating habits so you can reap the benefits earlier than the crowd.

Plastics are another pervasive issue for brain health. Nearly every food in the supermarket is coated, wrapped, or bottled in plastic. Yet the evidence is overwhelmingly clear, these plastics damage the brain in many ways [r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r]; not to mention damaging the body in hundreds of ways [r]. One such effect of plastics such as BP-A is that they can cause damage to your dopamine system, which will affect your motivation and drive [r]. However, it’s not just BP-A that should be avoided, there is also BP-B, -F, -S etc. The plastic alphabet is long and deleterious to biological life [r].

Brain food

The best foods for your brain are generally foods with greatest levels of DHA, choline, anti-inflammatory effects, or compounds that increase blood flow to the brain (CBF)

The top brain foods include:

  • Salmon - many fish contain high levels of DHA omega-3 fats, but salmon tops that list. There are even studies linking the size of a baby's brain, mental maturity and mental performance to the amount of DHA consumed during pregnancy.

  • Sardines - Same reasoning as above.

  • Avocado - the only fruit containing high amounts of DHA, also shown to mildly increase CBF.

  • Blueberries - increases CBF, BDNF, prevents cognitive decline with age, and mildly improves the immune system [r].

  • Grass-fed steak - Grass-fed meat usually contains a good 1:2 ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3, also contains high levels of stearic acid, a fatty acid shown to increase mitochondrial energy use [r][r][r].

  • Liver - contains incredible amounts of folate and choline, essential nutrients for our brain and DNA.

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil - has moderate levels of Omega-3 and has shown to be anti-inflammatory.

  • Dark Chocolate or Cocoa - Increases CBF, BDNF, and anandamide (a happy brain chemical) [r][r][r][r][r][r][r].

  • Coffee - improves reaction and processing speeds, lowers sleepiness, but does not improve memory or learning. Coffee also limits neuroplasticity by lowering BDNF [r].

  • Resistant starch in green bananas - can convert to butyrate (a short chain fat), which also increases BDNF [r].

  • Raw, unfiltered, local honey - This mostly serves as a prebiotic, and may possibly help with seasonal allergies [r][r][r].

  • High magnesium foods will increase BDNF [r]. Including natural mineral water, avocado, salmon, cheese, yoghurt, and bone broth.

  • Broccoli, sprouts, and asparagus can increase BDNF due to the sulforaphane inside, but will also cause thyroid issues, and may cause fat gain [r][r].

Supplement sources:

Nootropic supplements are probably the fastest way to reap the results of enhanced brain performance.

To make these, scientists generally analyse a ‘brain food’ to find exactly what molecule is creating the beneficial effects, what method of action it’s using inside our bodies to create the effect and then they simply isolate the exact molecule/s and replicate it or extract it from the food. This leads to a condensed version and even stronger effects, minus all the calories! A great example of this is Curcumin, a beneficial compound only found in the spice turmeric. Unfortunately only small amounts are found within turmeric, so while you will get a small amount of benefit from adding turmeric to your foods, it’s far easier to isolate and condense the curcumin inside a tablet, so you can have the benefits without having to eat piles of turmeric every day.

Here are some of the top supplemental Nootropics for mental performance and neuroplasticity:

Processing speed, Decision-Making, Focus, Flow

  • Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR)

  • Aniracetam

  • Caffeine (low dose),

  • CDP-Choline

  • Lion’s Mane Mushroom

  • NALT

  • Vitamin B Complex

  • Creatine Monohydrate

  • 5-HTP

  • Exogenous ketones

Learning & Memory

  • Aniracetam

  • Bacopa Monnieri

  • CDP-Choline

  • DHA

  • L-Theanine

  • Phosphatidylserine (PS)

  • Pine Bark Extract

  • Creatine Monohydrate

  • Lithium Aspartate

  • Magnesium L-threonate

  • Exogenous ketones

Anxiety & Depression

  • Myo-inositol

  • L-theanine

  • Phosphatidylserine (PS)

  • Aniracetam (low dose)

  • CDP-Choline (caution)

  • Bacopa Monnieri

  • Rhodiola Rosea

  • Sulbutiamine

  • B-Complex

  • Creatine Monohydrate

  • Lithium Aspartate

  • Magnesium L-threonate

  • 5-HTP

Energy & Motivation

  • Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR)

  • Creatine Monohydrate

  • Alpha Lipoic Acid

  • Caffeine

  • CDP-Choline

  • Rhodiola

  • CoQ10

  • PQQ

  • 5-HTP

  • Exogenous ketones

Brain Repair & Maintenance

  • Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR)

  • Aniracetam

  • Creatine Monohydrate

  • Green coffee bean extract

  • CDP-Choline

  • DHA

  • Phosphatidylserine (PS)

  • Vinpocetine

  • Rhodiola Rosea

  • Pine Bark Extract

  • Lithium Aspartate

  • Magnesium L-threonate

  • Exogenous ketones

Increasing cerebral blood flow

  • Nitrates

  • Ginkgo biloba

  • Vinpocetine


  • L-Theanine

  • Citicoline

  • Blueberry extract

  • Pomegranate juice

  • Pyrroloquinoline Quinone (PQQ)

  • Dark chocolate (>90%)

  • Omega 3

  • Magnesium L-threonate

  • Piracetam

Non supplement:

  • Exercise

  • Cold exposure

  • Ketogenic states

  • Fasting

  • Chewing gum

  • Acupuncture

  • Meditation

  • Sunlight

  • Headstand/handstand

  • Increasing CO2 threshold

But which is best?

Unfortunately, due to the novelty of many nootropics, they often remain in legally grey areas of the law. As such, many of the data around real-life use are exceedingly hard to collect. After all, who would admit to using something potentially illegal or something seen as cheating in their industry?

Further, surveys amongst the nootropics community are difficult, as users are globally distributed, the substances are legally grey in many jurisdictions, and lastly, many of the most passionate contributors are individuals who value privacy and security, and so conceal themselves to the darker sides of the net, or behind pseudonyms.

Yet we do have just one survey from 2016, which is illuminating, and reaches beyond what any academic study could produce, due to regulatory limitations.

Evidently of how difficult these things are, the author of the survey was threatened to have his anonymity leaked before he could post the more recent 2020 results, and unfortunately had to shut down his blog to avoid being doxxed by the New York Times.

However, we did get some interesting results in the 2016 study:

Image sourced: Slate Star Codex: 2016 Nootropics Survey Results

From this, we can see some of the top nootropics are either prescription-only or heavily regulated (to be expected). But there are some useful insights here, particularly Semax, Theanine, and Selank. Clearly the r/Nootropics community has some favourites.

This shouldn't be taken at face value however. It’s only anecdotal, and is probably riddled with bias.

In fact, we can see caffeine ranked highly, with by far the highest number of users (769), yet we know caffeine does not help with learning, can have negative effects on working memory (creativity & problem solving), and is deleterious to brain matter. In fact, taking a 10 day break from regular caffeine use will actually help your brain grow back that lost grey matter [r][r][r].

Anecdotal studies must be taken with a grain of salt, but they can still be useful and often reach into new areas untouched by academia, because academia's limited by the regulatory hand that funds them. Anecdotal evidence very often trail blazes the way through risky areas for academia to more rigorously & safely catch up later.

One meta-study collated data around the use of drugs to enhance mental performance by looking at the use by university students [r]. But even across the 4715 studies collected in this meta-study, the data are not overly useful, as many of the chemicals used are highly addictive, and don’t have much actionable take-home utility.

Nootropic supplements are, unfortunately, still a tricky terrain..

Much research has still yet to be done.

Additional supplement resources:

Here’s a long list of nootropics, with a short explainer to their benefits and mechanism of action. Here's a smaller list of nootropics, with explainers. A nootropic suggester (overly simplistic). Gwern’s more detailed list of nootropics. A good list from a nootropic shop. Here’s a list of supplements that increase BDNF. Here’s a list of Russian-born man-made nootropics (use is not suggested). This article talks to increasing intelligence via nootropics and biohacking. r/ Nootropics, for community stories and anecdotes. Plus, a beginners guide.

Activities sources: Physical exertion (exercise) or physical stressors can cause beneficial neurological and chemical changes within the brain.

  • Walking for 10 minutes has been shown to significantly increase creativity and complex problem solving skills, although it was also found to slightly reduce social fluidity and word recall [r][r][r].

  • Yoga was found to increase working memory, lower depression, lower anxiety and increase cognitive performance [r][r][r][r][r].

  • Acupuncture was also found to increase BDNF [r].

  • Learning an instrument can improve neuroplasticity in the areas associated with speech production, language recognition, proprioception, hand coordination, and digit span (remembering long numbers), and in the auditory cortex of the brain [r][r][r][r][r].

  • Playing an instrument was also associated with higher IQ, better verbal memory, and linguistic ability [r][r][r].

  • Playing piano for just 2 weeks was shown to cause reorganisational changes in the auditory cortex above the changes caused by just listening to the piano [r].

  • Singing, dancing and drumming each release endorphins in ways that just listening to music won’t [r].

  • Chewing gum may increase neuroplasticity [r]. However, it’s difficult to find gum that’s free of mildly toxic chemicals.

  • Exercise has by far the strongest beneficial effect on neurology [r][r][r], with 29 independent studies showing an increase in neuroplasticity [r].

  • During exercise, blood brain flow increases from ~700ml/second upwards to 1.2L/second [r][r][r][r][r].

  • A short bout of weight training has been shown to significantly increase information processing speeds [r][r].

  • Just 8 sets of high intensity weight training also increases BDNF [r].

  • BDNF release is positively correlated with lactic acid build up during exercise. Meaning, those long burning drop-sets could be improving your brain as well as your muscle [r].

  • Strength gains, but not aerobic gains, are correlated with significant improvements to cognitive impairment when training 2-3 days per week [r].

  • Interestingly, indoor cycling increased BDNF, yet not cycling in heavy traffic [r].

  • Sprinting greatly improves learning, and further, sprinters were found to have higher baseline levels of BDNF [r][r].

Exercise benefits:

Molecularly promotes:

  • Neurogenesis

  • Synaptogenesis

  • Gliogenesis

  • Angiogenesis

  • [r][r][r][r][r]

Cellularly Increases:

  • BDNF

  • IGF-1

  • VEGF

  • and other Neural Growth Factors

Functionally & structurally increases:

  • White matter volume

  • Grey matter volume

  • Receptor activity

  • Neural activity

  • Cerebral blood volume

  • [r][r][r][r][r]

Behaviourally improves:

  • Cognitive function

  • Motor function

  • Symptoms of depression, anxiety, autism, and ADHD

  • [r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r][r]

There have also been multiple findings showing a strong link between body fat percentage and brain size. The correlation is linear; it shows that the more body fat held, the less grey matter our brain will hold across several areas of the brain. The studies show us that the brain will physically shrink in direct proportion to how much fat you gain [r][r][r][r][r][r][r].

Behavioural sources:

Being mindful of our own thoughts and feelings has a host of benefits; namely self-awareness.

Being mindful was also shown to increase working memory and cognitive performance [r][r].

Meditation was found to create actual physical changes to white and grey matter inside the brain, which resulted in better cognitive and emotional control, emotional regulation, memory, self-awareness, learning, and internal communication (intra-hemispheric communication) [r][r]. It quite literally increases the thickness of the cortex (the hardware), and of the white matter (the cords & cables), which was found to improve attention, interoception, and sensory processing [r][r].

Meditation helps with attentional awareness (awareness of when you’re distracted, or where you could best spend your attention). It does this by simultaneously (and paradoxically) allowing the brain to relax, while also increasing its output, which is likely caused by reducing the release of two inflammatory cytokines (IL-1 & IL-6) [r].

Meditation is also useful for treating depression, likely because it boosts neuroplasticity and brain growth, whilst also lowering inflammation, a primary contributor to major depressive disorder [r].

Brief daytime naps of (5-20 mins) have been shown to enhance cognitive performance, learning, memory consolidation, and increase alertness [r][r][r][r][r][r][r]. Longer naps of 30mins+ were shown to be detrimental on cognitive performance due to sleep inertia.

Short bursts of breath holding (hypoxia) can promote an increase in BDNF and MANF [r][r]. This can be easily practised in the office. Personally, I use this during cardio exercise by only breathing through the nose while running, or whilst walking by holding the breath for X number of steps, and then trying to refrain from taking a huge gulp of air on the first several inhalations (shallow breaths for as long as comfortable after briefly holding your breath).

Environmental sources:

Cold exposure increases neuroplasticity via increased BDNF, yet decreases cognitive performance [r][r]. So, having a brief period of cold water during your morning shower may prove to enhance learning long term.

Heat exposure can increase a host of cognitive boosting agents, including BDNF, MANF, and GDNF [r][r][r][r][r]. Visiting a sauna once per fortnight is a useful tool.

Getting in the sun during the day can increase BDNF levels from two different angles.

Firstly, sunlight increases BDNF directly [r].

Secondly, central BDNF levels naturally rise and fall as the day progresses, with levels generally peaking during the morning, and slowly decreasing thereafter. So, aligning your circadian rhythm to the time-zone you live in can help optimise BDNF levels, and enhance neuroplasticity [r][r][r].

Blue light can also increase BDNF when viewed, which can easily be achieved by using a blue background, or having blue ambient lighting around your desk, office, or household [r][r].

Personally, I like to use smart-lights and LED panels around my home, for a more appealing look, or comforting ambient lighting.

Music can also increase BDNF. In particular, new music varieties or unfamiliar artists [r][r][r].

Listening to music has even been found to be neuroprotective [r].

It’s also possible that music from different cultures influences brain plasticity in entirely different ways (eg. Eastern vs Western music) [r].

Try listening to a new genre, or your favourite genre produced in different countries speaking foreign languages. You don't need to understand the words to enjoy the music, nor to feel the message.

Here’s a few that I've listened to:

Noise can be distracting, however, ambient (background) noise can be beneficial for boosting creativity [r]. Using a free service like Mynoise may help when you need to spark some creativity, or stay in the creative zone.

Environments enriched with new things will also increase neurogenesis via increasing BDNF [r][r][r].

This was shown in animal models using mice and memory puzzles. When selectively bred ‘super-intelligent’ mice are pitted against selectively bred ‘super-dumb’ mice, the intelligent mice could easily beat the dumb mice on memory tasks, but only if their daily environment was also enriched with novel stimuli such as toys, treadmills, tubes, and the like. However, if their cages were devoid of any stimuli, then the intelligent mice barely performed better than the dumb mice.

The benefits of environmental enrichment were actually shown in both breeds, as they both improved on the memory task when raised in a cage full of stimuli. However, the intelligent mice improved by a far higher degree than the ‘dumber’ mice.

It’s worth noting that this still shows the ‘dumb’ mice could be improved; which personally gave me some hope for myself (jk).

Simply put, when your environment is devoid of novel stimuli, you may fail to learn and grow as effectively. Yet, by providing an enriched environment, you should learn at a significantly higher rate [r].

Neuroplasticity In Development

Image sourced: Johanson & Belichenko (2002)

This can be achieved by inserting new things into your current environment, or by travelling to new locations.

Personally, here’s some techniques I employ:

  • Take random wandering walks through the neighbourhood; always turning the street down the path that looks least familiar, into unknown areas (good time to listen to a podcast).

  • Replace your phone & desktop backgrounds every month.

  • Listen to music from new genres, or better yet, new languages (Japanese hip-hop was an old favourite, Latin dance is a new one).

  • Visit new suburbs, cafes, restaurants, parks, or art galleries once per week (a quarterly QAGoMA visit is a favourite).

  • Train at new gyms on the weekend.

  • Place new pieces of art around the house, or shuffle old pieces to new areas.

  • Take the ferry to a new stop further down the river. Enjoy the scenery of the ride and the new destination.

  • Visit a friend's house.

  • Walk through the park, and intentionally try to notice the minutiae of nature; like a caterpillar wriggling across a vine, the falling of leaves from trees up high, or a conversation between two birds.

  • Intentionally do something outside your comfort zone (karaoke, yoga, painting, swimming, cooking classes, new cuisines, travelling somewhere English is not commonly spoken).

  • Try learning a new sport or martial art.

  • Take on a project well above your current competence levels (I’m currently building my own at-home cloud server and a DNS sink-hole called Pi-hole, both using a Raspberry Pi).

  • Go for a hike.

  • Read or watch videos on philosophy.


Edit: 11th June 2023

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Published: block 750,993

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