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best cognitive enhancers study drugs nootropics for studying study pills UK natural ways to increase focus and concentration

Best cognitive enhancers you can use to get through the exam period

Published Apr 24, 2023 | Updated Feb 8, 2024

Exam periods are fastly approaching and that’s probably got you thinking about how to prepare for an exam if you have one scheduled. This article takes you through the field of best cognitive enhancers and their research. In it, you’ll discover natural ways which can safely boost your efficiency while doing cognitive tasks such as learning and memory retention. 

What exactly is cognitive enhancement? 

Cognitive enhancement may be defined as “a benefit-seeking strategy used by healthy individuals to enhance cognitive abilities such as learning, memory, and attention”[1]. Both non-pharmacological and pharmacological enhancers are sought by the general public to improve performance during studying and at work by increasing concentration and motivation via physical, behavioural and biochemical activities[1]. While you can boost your physical and mental performance with your way of life and a balanced diet, a lot of people also opt for nutrient supplements to make sure they are getting enough nutrients. While some people use high-quality supplements, others tend to turn a blind eye to all the possible health risks and opt for cognitive enhancer drugs. With people having access to and demanding increasingly complex information, the need for optimal cognitive functioning is growing steadily. A great variety of interventions can be clustered into biochemical and behavioural enhancement strategies[3].

Nootropics: you are what you eat

Nearly everyone uses a nootropic. One example is caffeine[4]. Most people interested in nootropics for studying are branching out to nutrient supplements, such as ginseng, ginkgo, 5-htp, Alpha GPC, L-theanine, and tyrosine. Another type of nootropics are synthetic compounds which you can get over the counter in the U.S., but they’re considered prescription drugs in some other countries as young, healthy people are advised to steer clear of them[4]. Prescription nootropics or so-called study drugs largely consist of stimulants such as those in some ADHD or narcolepsy medications, like Modafinil and Adderall[4]. Although these work well for numerous people with diagnosed mental health conditions, people who simply want to improve their focus and attention should use different methods. Many students get these types of drugs illegally, and while they may seem to help in the short term, they pose a serious risk with a lot of serious side effects[2,4,5,9]. Read more about that here. They can be particularly harmful to young people as their brains continue to develop into their mid-twenties[2].

Multiple studies, conducted in New Zealand, the UK, and Poland, have shown that students’ main goal in using cognitive enhancers was improving academic performance, concentration and staying awake[6,7,9]. Many students use dietary supplements, while some also use study pills. UK students also use recreational drugs and illegal drugs. Researchers from New Zealand also found that students who perceived cognitive enhancers to be more socially and ethically acceptable were more likely to use them and vice versa[6]. A review of multiple studies has shown that the most popular cognitive enhancers were prescription drugs and caffeine-related compounds which they largely obtained from friends and family, as well as via the Internet[8]. They also found that more males were using cognitive enhancers than females in the belief that these cognitive enhancers will improve their performance during examinations or when studying. 

You’re probably wondering about what cognitive enhancers should you take, and what additional behavioural strategies you can implement in your life to stay on top of your studying while boosting your cognitive performance safely. 

Nutrient supplements

While prescription nootropics only keep you awake for longer, nutrients are the key to better cognitive performance. A study conducted by German researchers found that only caffeine had a positive effect on sustained attention when compared to prescription drugs[11]. So while Adderall and Modafinil do keep you awake for longer, what good does it do if your cognitive performance is out of shape? Read more about natural ways to increase focus and concentration.

Certain vitamins, such as vitamins C, D and some B vitamins, play an important role in keeping your brain and heart healthy[12]. The right vitamins can improve cognitive function, and help protect your brain. Ultimately, food is your best source of vitamins. Make sure to add these to your grocery list to get your intake of the above-mentioned vitamins: beans, eggs, almonds, meat, fish, broccoli, kale, and dark chocolate.  

Another important nutrient that can boost your exam performance is choline. Your body uses this nutrient to make the learning and memory chemical called acetylcholine. You can find choline in certain foods like protein-rich foods and in a supplement form.

brain feed developed the world’s 1st 500mg memory chemical precursor called Alpha GPC capsule containing 99% Alpha GPC in 2018. The levels of the memory chemical acetylcholine are boosted while we ingest Alpha GPC. Acetylcholine is then released when you’re performing cognitive tasks, such as memory retention and learning. Alpha GPC naturally occurs in the brain. Studies show that boosting choline levels can help restore the bioavailability of acetylcholine[13,14], while supplementation with Alpha GPC indicated an increase in brain function directly related to the healthy supply of acetylcholine[15].

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Sleep, meditate, exercise, repeat

Behavioural strategies are probably cognitive enhancers with the most widespread use and longest history; evidence shows that everyday activities such as sleep or physical exercise ameliorate cognitive functioning[3]. Also, well-established cultural activities such as musical training, dancing or learning a second language have been demonstrated to enhance cognition beyond the specifically trained skills[3].

In addition to these natural and cultural standard activities, several behavioural strategies have been developed to enhance certain brain functions intentionally, such as meditation training to enhance attention processes and mindfulness[3,16,17].

Safe nutrient supplementation

While all people can benefit from a healthy and balanced diet, physical exercise, good sleep, and meditation, using biochemical cognitive enhancers is a bit trickier.

  1. Ensure your intake of certain nutrients is in the recommended daily dosage when calculating your intake by combining your diet and supplements.
  2. Make sure the supplements are high-quality and contain only the substances you need. For example, supplements of molecules that help our gut called probiotics are sometimes packed in a capsule with a molecule that boosts our immune system called L-glutamine. As this will be okay for some people, some might want to consider taking so-called ‘combination supplements carefully’.
  3. Some studies also showed that ingesting certain vitamins like vitamin C and B-12 lowers their absorption. That is why you should steer clear of multivitamins and opt only for specific ones in which you’re deficient. 
  4. Nutrient supplements should be based on research evidence and produced in approved facilities to maintain high-quality ingredients and have sufficient dosage.
  5. The dosage and time frame of your nutrient supplement intake should be in accordance with the manufacturer. 


[1] Napoletano, F., Schifano, F., Corkery, J. M., Guirguis, A., Arillotta, D., Zangani, C., & Vento, A. (2020). The Psychonauts’ World of Cognitive Enhancers. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11

[2] Nootropics (2021). Alcohol and Drug Foundation.'cognitive,There%20are%20many%20different%20nootropics.

[3] Dresler, M., Sandberg, A., Bublitz, C., Ohla, K., Trenado, C., Mroczko-Wąsowicz, A., Kühn, S., & Repantis, D. (2018). Hacking the Brain: Dimensions of Cognitive Enhancement. ACS Chemical Neuroscience, 10(3), 1137–1148. 

[4] Brody, B. (2022). What Are Nootropics? WebMD.

[5] Malík, M., & Tlustoš, P. (2022). Nootropics as Cognitive Enhancers: Types, Dosage and Side Effects of Smart Drugs. Nutrients, 14(16), Article 16. 

[6] Ram, S. (Sanya), Hussainy, S., Henning, M., Stewart, K., Jensen, M., & Russell, B. (2017). Attitudes Toward Cognitive Enhancer Use Among New Zealand Tertiary Students. Substance Use & Misuse, 52(11), 1387–1392. 

[7] Narayanan, A., Gill, M., Leem, C., Li, C., Mein Smith, F., Shepherd, B., Ting, S., van Bart, K., Green, J. A., Samaranayaka, A., Ergler, C., & Macmillian, A. (2021). Students’ use of caffeine, alcohol, dietary supplements, and illegal substances for improving academic performance in a New Zealand university. Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine, 9(1), 917–932. 

[8] McDermott, H., Lane, H., & Alonso, M. (2021). Working smart: The use of ‘cognitive enhancers’ by UK University students. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 45(2), 270–283.

[9] Sharif, S., Guirguis, A., Fergus, S., & Schifano, F. (2021). The Use and Impact of Cognitive Enhancers among University Students: A Systematic Review. Brain Sciences, 11(3), 355. 

[10] Merwid-Ląd, A., Passon, M., Drymluch, P., Głuszyński, M., Szeląg, A., & Matuszewska, A. (2023). Do Medical Universities Students Use Cognitive Enhancers while Learning?-Conclusions from the Study in Poland. Life, 13(3), 820.

[11] Repantis, D., Bovy, L., Ohla, K., Kühn, S., & Dresler, M. (2021). Cognitive enhancement effects of stimulants: a randomized controlled trial testing methylphenidate, modafinil, and caffeine. Psychopharmacology, 238(2), 441–451. 

[12] Shannahan, A. B., & Maganti, K. (2022). 10 Vitamins and Minerals That Boost Brain and Heart Health (Infographic): Natural Ways to Reduce Blood Pressure and Improve Memory. Northwestern Medicine.,your%20best%20source%20of%20vitamins.

[13] Trabucchi, M., Govoni, S., & Battaini, F. (1986). Changes in the interaction between CNS cholinergic and dopaminergic neurons induced by L-alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine, a cholinomimetic drug. Il Farmaco; edizione scientifica, 41(4), 325–334.

[14] Vega, J. A., Cavallotti, C., del Valle, M. E., Mancini, M., & Amenta, F. (1993). Nerve growth factor receptor immunoreactivity in the cerebellar cortex of aged rats: effect of choline alfoscerate treatment. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, 69(1-2), 119–127.

[15] Schettini, G., Ventra, C., Florio, T., Grimaldi, M., Meucci, O., Scorziello, A., Postiglione, A., & Marino, A. (1992). Molecular mechanisms mediating the effects of L-alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine, a new cognition-enhancing drug, on behavioral and biochemical parameters in young and aged rats. Pharmacology, biochemistry, and behavior, 43(1), 139–151.

[16] Tang, Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213–225. 

[17] Luders, E., Cherbuin, N., & Kurth, F. (2015). Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on grey matter atrophy. Frontiers in psychology5, 1551.

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