Top 9 Best Brain Supplements For Supporting Cognition and Memory
Responsible for every thought, emotion, movement, and memory that we have, our brains are undeniably the most complex and influential part of our body. As this elaborate organ is involved in just about everything we do on a day-to-day basis, people of all ages commonly search for ways to bolster their brain health and improve performance. From a young person looking for the best brain supplements for focus and concentration to an older adult striving to prevent loss of memory, people of all ages want to maintain — or gain — a high level of mental sharpness and clarity.
As there are hundreds of cognitive enhancement supplements on the market today, it can be challenging to sort through them and determine which ones are legitimate and backed by science. In this article, take a deep dive into the top nine evidence-based cognitive support supplements, helping you to answer questions like, “How can I sharpen my brain?”, “What vitamins help cognitive function?”, and “What is the best natural brain booster?”
Top 9 Best Cognitive Support Supplements
Curcumin, the primary bioactive compound of turmeric root (Curcuma longa) providing the spice with its bright yellow hue, might be one of the best supplements for supporting brain health. Research has found that curcumin increases the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) — a protein that supports the growth, maintenance, and survival of the information-transmitting brain cells called neurons.
Curcumin also supports healthy cognition as we age by reducing inflammatory markers and oxidative stress — the accumulation of damaging compounds like free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS) — in the brain. In one study that combined data from six large trials, curcumin supplementation significantly improved scores of memory and cognitive function in healthy adults.
Despite these brain-related benefits, one glaring problem with curcumin is related to how well — or rather, how poorly — our bodies absorb the compound. Fortunately, there are several ways to make curcumin more readily available for our cells and tissues to utilize. One method is using liposomal curcumin. Liposomes are double-layered carriers that shield the hydrophobic (water-hating) curcumin in its core and use its outer layers to interact with aqueous environments, thereby improving curcumin’s problem with low water solubility.
Other methods to increase bioavailability include formulating curcumin into better-absorbed forms, like nanoparticles, or using adjuvants. The most commonly used adjuvant is piperine (the active component in black pepper) — research suggests it may increase curcumin’s bioavailability by up to 2000%.
2. Nicotinamide Mononucleotide (NMN)
Many researchers have recently been targeting the age-related decline in NAD+ (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) as a way to support cognitive health. NAD+ is a crucial molecule needed by every one of our cells to function properly — including those in the brain and nervous system. One of NAD+’s precursors, nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN), may be one way to fight back on this decline.
Although research is unavailable in humans thus far, some animal studies have shown promise for using NMN to support cognition. One study found that supplementing cognitively impaired rats with NMN significantly improved their brain energy metabolism, restored cognitive abilities, and increased neuron survival rates.
In another, researchers found that aged mice supplemented with NMN exhibited improved cerebral blood flow and increased the activity of several genes related to the integrity of the blood-brain barrier. Also known as the BBB, this semi-permeable yet highly selective border of cells acts as an internal security system for the brain, protecting it from toxins or other foreign substances while allowing in vital nutrients and oxygen.
While we don’t have any studies showing how NMN supplements affect cognition or brain health in people, we do have evidence that NMN is a safe compound for humans to use.
From being in the womb to using a walker, choline is a necessary nutrient for healthy brain function. Choline has shown neuroprotective abilities in animal and human studies, especially with memory and cognitive function.
Although choline is not technically a vitamin, it behaves similarly to those in the B-vitamin family. Our bodies can produce a small amount of choline, but we need to get most of it through food or supplements. However, it’s tougher to reach the daily recommendations from food alone — it would take nine cups of Brussel sprouts or four egg yolks to meet a man’s daily needs.
Choline is needed to synthesize phospholipids, the fats that comprise the majority of our cell membranes. The most common choline-containing phospholipid is phosphatidylcholine, accounting for 95% of the choline in our tissues. As a vital component of cell membranes, choline is involved with cell signaling, fat transport, and synthesis of neurotransmitters — molecules used by the brain and nervous system to transmit messages to and from neurons. Choline is a precursor to acetylcholine — a neurotransmitter responsible for muscle contractions, pain responses, and regulating memory and our body’s internal clocks (the circadian rhythm).
Research has backed up choline’s involvement in brain health. In a study of healthy adults, those who consumed more dietary choline had better verbal and visual memory test scores than those lower on the choline intake scale. Also, those who consumed more choline had a reduction in abnormalities to white mattter in the brain, a common finding in people with impaired cognitive health.
In an extensive review that pooled data from 14 studies, supplementing with CDP-choline (a precursor to phosphatidylcholine) was associated with improved memory and behavior in adults with cognitive deficits.
There are many forms of supplemental choline, including CDP-choline (also known as citicoline) and Alpha-GPC, which can cross the blood-brain barrier. Many choline supplements are made of choline salts, including choline chloride and choline bitartrate. However, choline salts do not cross the blood-brain barrier in humans and are likely not as effective. Phosphatidylcholine is also available as a supplement; however, choline is not concentrated in this form, with only about 13% choline by weight.
4. Marine-Based Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Commonly known as fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids from marine sources have been well-studied for their role in supporting cognition and brain health. While you can undoubtedly get ample omega-3s from consuming fish like salmon and sardines, most Americans don’t consume the recommended amount of fatty seafood. Therefore, fish oil supplements — which contain two types of omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — can be a more straightforward solution.
Both EPA and DHA are abundant in the cell membranes of neurons, helping to preserve cell membrane integrity and regulate communication between brain cells. These omega-3 fats also promote healthier inflammatory responses throughout the entire body — and the brain is no exception.
Lower blood levels of DHA are linked to smaller brain sizes in older adults, indicating accelerated brain aging. In a clinical study of people with declining cognitive health, those who took 900 mg of DHA for 24 weeks performed better on learning and memory tests.
However, some research has shown that supplemental EPA is more effective than DHA when it comes to cognition. In a recent study from September 2021, healthy young adults aged 25 to 49 who took 900 mg of EPA per day for 26 weeks had significantly improved scores of both speed and accuracy on tests of attention, recall, word recognition, and memory compared to both the placebo and DHA supplementation. While DHA is still certainly vital to brain health, these results suggest that supplementing with EPA over DHA could prove more beneficial to cognition — especially in healthy younger adults.
Resveratrol is a compound found in several plant foods, including red grapes, cocoa, peanuts, raspberries, blueberries, and cranberries. While resveratrol’s claim to fame tends to be red wine, the amount found in wine is not enough to be clinically relevant.
A more efficient way to get an adequate dose of resveratrol is through supplements. However, not all resveratrol supplements are created equal. Trans-resveratrol is the more bioavailable form of the compound (compared to cis-resveratrol), meaning your body can absorb and utilize it more effectively.
Some of the purported benefits of resveratrol include its effects on brain health and cognition, both acutely and over time. In the short term, a study of adults aged 40 to 80 with metabolic concerns exhibited cognitive benefits when supplemented with single doses of resveratrol (at varying amounts of 75, 150, and 300 mg). Compared to the placebo, 75 mg of resveratrol was sufficient to improve cognitive performance, neural activity, and cerebral blood flow.
Longer-term studies have also shown the benefits of resveratrol to brain health. In a 24-month trial, postmenopausal women who took a total of 150 mg of trans-resveratrol per day exhibited a 33% improvement in overall cognitive performance and memory compared to when they took the placebo.
Phosphatidylserine is a fatty substance known as a phospholipid, an essential part of the cell membranes in our brain and nervous system. It benefits the brain by supporting communication and transmission between neurons, protecting the coating around nerves known as myelin, and facilitating neurotransmitter release.
With these vital functions, phosphatidylserine is thought to positively impact cognition, communication, problem-solving, language skills, and short- and long-term memory. In a study of elderly adults with memory loss, consuming as little as 100 mg of phosphatidylserine for six months improved memory function, especially delayed recall.
7. Bacopa monnieri Leaf Extract
Bacopa monnieri (also known as brahmi or water hyssop) is an herb commonly used in traditional Ayurvedic practices for supporting memory and mood. Bacopa contains the compounds bacosides A and B, which support neuronal health by providing antioxidant activity, increasing blood flow in the brain, and modulating essential neurotransmitters.
In a 3-month study, healthy adults who took 300 mg of Bacopa per day showed significantly increased visual information processing, learning, and memory recall. Plus, animal studies have found that Bacopa supplementation extends the length and branching ability of dendrites — the branch-like area off the ends of neurons that receive signals from other cells, acting as an antenna that supports learning and memory.
8. Lion’s Mane Mushroom
With its name originating from its likeness to the long hair of a lion, the lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium Erinaceus) is thought to benefit the brain and nervous system. Lion’s mane contains bioactive compounds called erinacines that support nerve growth factors, cognition, and neurogenesis — the creation of new neurons. Lion’s mane has also exhibited antioxidant activity, as it scavenges for free radicals, reduces oxidative stress, and lowers the production of pro-inflammatory signaling compounds called cytokines.
Although we don’t have much available research on lion’s mane consumption in humans, one clinical study looked at how the mushroom affected 50- to 80-year-old Japanese men and women with poor cognitive function. The researchers found those that supplemented with lion’s mane powder for 16 weeks had significantly improved cognitive function scores, which began to improve during the 8th week of the supplementation. However, cognition did not remain elevated for long, with their scores falling back down four weeks after supplementation ended.
In a cell-based study, researchers looked at how lion’s mane affected mouse neurons after exposure to oxidative stress in the hippocampus — the area of the brain most responsible for learning and memory. Adding lion’s mane extract to the cells protected the neurons by increasing their viability after the oxidation and significantly increased antioxidant activity while reducing mitochondrial toxicity and inflammation.
L-theanine is an amino acid found primarily in green tea and matcha. This compound promotes a state of wakeful relaxation — the kind of peaceful brain state that you experience during meditation, creative work, or anything that puts you in a flow state.
L-theanine produces this focused energy by enhancing alpha brain waves — which are associated with calmness, relaxation, and contentment — without drowsiness or fatigue. The amino acid also supports cognition through its ability to increase BDNF production and neurogenesis and reduce inflammatory signaling pathways.
Research has found that consuming L-theanine in combination with caffeine, like green tea and matcha, amplifies the effects on cognition and focus. In a study of young adults, a combination of 97 mg of L-theanine with 40 mg of caffeine led to significant improvements in accuracy during task switching and self-reported alertness.
Similarly, a study of older adults aged 50 to 69 found that taking a single dose of 100 mg of L-theanine significantly reduced the reaction time to attention tasks, increased the number of correct answers, and decreased the number of errors in working memory tasks.
While hundreds of cognitive enhancement supplements claim to boost memory or focus, not all are backed by science. These nine nutrients and compounds have been researched for their ability to support brain health and cognitive function, both in the short- and long term. As always, talk to your health care provider before trying any new cognitive support supplement if you have questions or concerns.
Baba Y, Inagaki S, Nakagawa S, Kaneko T, Kobayashi M, Takihara T. Effects of l-Theanine on Cognitive Function in Middle-Aged and Older Subjects: A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Study. J Med Food. 2021;24(4):333-341. doi:10.1089/jmf.2020.4803
Fioravanti M, Yanagi M. Cytidinediphosphocholine (CDP-choline) for cognitive and behavioural disturbances associated with chronic cerebral disorders in the elderly. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2005;(2):CD000269. Published 2005 Apr 18. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000269.pub3
Irie J, Inagaki E, Fujita M, et al. Effect of oral administration of nicotinamide mononucleotide on clinical parameters and nicotinamide metabolite levels in healthy Japanese men. Endocr J. 2020;67(2):153-160. doi:10.1507/endocrj.EJ19-0313
Giesbrecht T, Rycroft JA, Rowson MJ, De Bruin EA. The combination of L-theanine and caffeine improves cognitive performance and increases subjective alertness. Nutr Neurosci. 2010;13(6):283-290. doi:10.1179/147683010X12611460764840
Kato-Kataoka A, Sakai M, Ebina R, Nonaka C, Asano T, Miyamori T. Soybean-derived phosphatidylserine improves memory function of the elderly Japanese subjects with memory complaints. J Clin Biochem Nutr. 2010;47(3):246-255. doi:10.3164/jcbn.10-62
Kiss T, Nyúl-Tóth Á, Balasubramanian P, et al. Nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN) supplementation promotes neurovascular rejuvenation in aged mice: transcriptional footprint of SIRT1 activation, mitochondrial protection, anti-inflammatory, and anti-apoptotic effects. Geroscience. 2020;42(2):527-546. doi:10.1007/s11357-020-00165-5
Kushairi N, Phan CW, Sabaratnam V, David P, Naidu M. Lion's Mane Mushroom, Hericium Erinaceus (Bull.: Fr.) Pers. Suppresses H2O2-Induced Oxidative Damage and LPS-Induced Inflammation in HT22 Hippocampal Neurons and BV2 Microglia. Antioxidants (Basel). 2019;8(8):261. Published 2019 Aug 1. doi:10.3390/antiox8080261
Mori K, Inatomi S, Ouchi K, Azumi Y, Tuchida T. Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium Erinaceus): a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Phytother Res. 2009;23(3):367-372. doi:10.1002/ptr.2634
Patan MJ, Kennedy DO, Husberg C, et al. Supplementation with oil rich in eicosapentaenoic acid, but not in docosahexaenoic acid, improves global cognitive function in healthy, young adults: results from randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2021;114(3):914-924. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqab174
Poly C, Massaro JM, Seshadri S, et al. The relation of dietary choline to cognitive performance and white-matter hyperintensity in the Framingham Offspring Cohort. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;94(6):1584-1591. doi:10.3945/ajcn.110.008938
Shoba G, Joy D, Joseph T, Majeed M, Rajendran R, Srinivas PS. Influence of piperine on the pharmacokinetics of curcumin in animals and human volunteers. Planta Med. 1998;64(4):353-356. doi:10.1055/s-2006-957450
Stough C, Lloyd J, Clarke J, et al. The chronic effects of an extract of Bacopa monniera (Brahmi) on cognitive function in healthy human subjects. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2001;156(4):481-484. doi:10.1007/s002130100815
Thaung Zaw JJ, Howe PR, Wong RH. Long-term effects of resveratrol on cognition, cerebrovascular function and cardio-metabolic markers in postmenopausal women: A 24-month randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study. Clin Nutr. 2021;40(3):820-829. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2020.08.025
Vollala VR, Upadhya S, Nayak S. Enhancement of basolateral amygdaloid neuronal dendritic arborization following Bacopa monniera extract treatment in adult rats. Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2011;66(4):663-671. doi:10.1590/s1807-59322011000400023
Wang X, Hu X, Yang Y, Takata T, Sakurai T. Nicotinamide mononucleotide protects against β-amyloid oligomer-induced cognitive impairment and neuronal death. Brain Res. 2016;1643:1-9. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2016.04.060
Wong RH, Raederstorff D, Howe PR. Acute Resveratrol Consumption Improves Neurovascular Coupling Capacity in Adults. Nutrients. 2016;8(7):425. Published 2016 Jul 12. doi:10.3390/nu8070425
Yurko-Mauro K, McCarthy D, Rom D, et al. Beneficial effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition. A & D. 2010;6(6):456-464. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2010.01.013
Zhu LN, Mei X, Zhang ZG, Xie YP, Lang F. Curcumin intervention for cognitive function in different types of people: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Phytother Res. 2019;33(3):524-533. doi:10.1002/ptr.6257