Are you stuck in a career that doesn’t inspire you? Or a relationship that doesn’t excite you? Or a lifestyle that doesn’t fulfill you?
Of the many excuses and issues for this complacency, one problem that surfaces the most is lack of motivation.
To make matters even worse – lack of motivation to change things that could make your life better often end up making you feel guilty and depressed.
And if left unchecked, a slow but steady spiral into long-term guilt, poor self-esteem and ongoing depression.
So what can you do to boost motivation? And where does that energy come from? That’s what we’re going to explore in this post.
We each have a limited amount of time on this planet. And no matter what stage you are in life. Realize this body will not live forever. It’s time to take back control. And learn how to change up the things you can change to create the life that you want to live.
This is where nootropics may be able to step in. And provide the brain food you need to steer you on a new path. Toward the things you want to achieve.
Table of Contents
The Neuroscience of Motivation
Dopamine and Motivation
Researchers have long known that the neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in pleasure and reward. More dopamine in your brain results in feelings of greater pleasure. And the presence of dopamine in your brain pushes you to seek this ‘reward’ of pleasure.
But researchers have recently discovered that dopamine also regulates motivation.
Dopamine provides the initiative and perseverance
needed to go after what is important to you.
In 2012, a team at Universitat Jaume I of Castellón changed the thinking and prevailing theory on dopamine. Mercè Correa said, “It was believed that dopamine regulated pleasure and reward and that we release it when we obtain something that satisfies us.
But in fact, the latest scientific evidence shows that this neurotransmitter acts before that. It actually encourages us to act. In other words, dopamine is released in order to achieve something good or to avoid something evil.”[i]
Dopamine levels vary by individual. Some people are more persistent than others when going after goals. Which you’ve likely noticed in the people around you when it comes to athletics, school and work.
Those with higher dopamine levels get more done.
Dopamine helps you to maintain the level of activity needed for what you intend. Whether it’s positive or negative. Depending on what you’re after. The goal to be a good student, or to abuse drugs.
High levels of dopamine could also explain the behavior of sensation-seekers because they are motivated to act. You see this in extreme sports. Or wildly successful musical performances.
Correa went on to say, “Depressed people do not feel like doing anything and that’s because of low dopamine levels”.
This lack of energy and motivation is also related to several debilitating health problems. Often associated with mental fatigue. Diseases like Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia.
Slacker or Go-Getter
Another study by a team at Vanderbilt University used a PET scan to map the brains of go-getters and slackers. And they found that those willing to work for rewards had higher levels of dopamine in the two areas of the brain known to be involved in motivation and reward (striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex).
On the other hand, slackers had higher dopamine levels in an area of the brain called the anterior insula. This area is involved in emotion and risk perception.
This last observation came as a complete surprise to researchers. Because more dopamine in the insula is associated with a reduced desire to work. Even if it means earning less money.[ii]
Glutamate AMPA-Receptors and Motivation
Turns out that dopamine is not the only neurotransmitter involved in motivation. In 2014, researchers discovered that glutamate neurons in a specific region of your brain (dorsal raphe nucleus) activate dopamine neurons in the dopamine-reward pathway.
Glutamate receptors are associated with neural communication, memory formation and learning. When glutamate AMPA-receptors in this area of the brain (dorsal raphe nucleus) are stimulated. It ends up activating the dopamine reward system.[iii]
The researchers followed this pathway all the way through using special tracers and labeling compounds.
The reward (or motivation) pathway starts with stimulation of glutamate AMPA-receptors that connect to dopamine neurons. Which in turn follows the pathway to the nucleus accumbens. The brain structure linked to motivation, pleasure and reward.
Common wisdom in nootropic circles (so far) advise us to boost dopamine to hack motivation. It is true that as dopamine levels rise in the nucleus accumbens (reward pathway), motivation, pleasure and reward are all affected.
But this same common wisdom would have you believe that if you boost overall dopamine levels in your brain, you’ll increase motivation. And it’s just not true.
In fact, if you increase dopamine levels too much, excess dopamine converts to norepinephrine. You get irritable and can’t sleep.
The missing link in this dopamine → reward → motivation pathway are glutamate AMPA-receptors.
Rather than boosting overall dopamine levels and hoping for the best. We need to encourage stimulation of glutamate AMPA-receptors to in turn, fire up dopamine neurons. And send dopamine on its way to the nucleus accumbens.
Best Nootropics for Motivation
We know that dopamine is critical to motivation. In the lab, researchers have demonstrated that without enough dopamine, rats starve themselves to death. Despite having access to food.[iv]
But in our world it’s doubtful that you have problems with motivation to eat. Or drag yourself out of bed in the morning. So basic dopamine levels are likely not an issue.
But what about changing course in an unfulfilling career? Or getting started on that book you want to write? Or plowing through boring and tedious work that’s just part of the job?
To successfully tweak and boost motivation, you need to address the efficiency of the dopamine – motivation pathway. And this is where many of the racetam nootropics come to the rescue.
Here’s a brief list of the most potent nootropics that we’ve discovered so far that will boost motivation. These are supplements that can influence your glutamate AMPA-receptors. And modulate the effectiveness of the main neurotransmitters that affect the motivation pathway in your brain.
- Aniracetam – This member of the racetam-family of nootropics is very well known for helping anxiety and depression. And one of my favorites.
This fat-soluble ampakine nootropic affects acetylcholine levels in the brain. It activates D2 and D3 dopamine And Aniracetam modulates AMPA receptors.[v] Leading to better cognition, memory and motivation.
- Iodine – This essential trace element combines with tyrosine to form thyroid hormones T4 and T3. Thyroid hormones affect every cell in your brain and body. Within your brain, T4 is converted to T3 by selenium which then affects gene expression controlling metabolism within cells. And activates dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine.[vi]
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll see Iodine on any nootropic list to boost motivation. But a malfunctioning thyroid which is often caused by not enough iodine results in poor cognition, difficulty learning, problems with recall, depression, anxiety and certainly a lack of motivation.
- Nefiracetam – This fat-soluble racetam nootropic is structurally similar to Aniracetam. Nefiracetam increases the amount of time calcium channels in neurons remain open. Enhancing signaling in the pathway critical for long-term potentiation and forming long-term memories.
Nefiracetam also potentiates protein kinase C alpha (PKCα) which is involved in long-term potentiation (LTP).[vii] PKCα is dependent on glutamate signaling. And Nefiracetam activates Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II (CaMKII) which is critical in memory formation.[viii] Again dependent on glutamate signaling. Remember, glutamate signaling fires dopamine neurons which leads to a boost in motivation.
- Noopept – This peptide-derived nootropic related to the racetam-family, Noopept increases BDNF, stimulates dopamine, nicotinic and serotonin receptors.[ix] Boosting energy, cognition, memory, logical thinking, mood and motivation.
Noopept also boosts Alpha and Beta brain wave You become calmer and more creative. It’s easier to go into a flow state. And you are prone to making innovative and resourceful decisions.
- Oxiracetam – This water-soluble ampakine nootropic in the racetam-class of compounds modulates AMPA receptors.[x] Oxiracetam increases acetylcholine And boosts ATP synthesis in brain cells.
Oxiracetam significantly improves cognition, memory, sensory perception, reflexes and motivation.
- Phenylpiracetam – This water-soluble nootropic in the racetam-class of compounds is known for its stimulatory effects. It increases the density of acetylcholine (ACh), NMDA, GABA and dopamine receptors in the brain.[xi] More receptors mean more binding sites for neurotransmitters that affect memory formation, cognition, sleep, mood and motivation.
Similar to Noopept, Phenylpiracetam has been shown in clinical studies to affect Alpha and Beta brain waves. And like Ritalin or Adderall, this nootropic increases the effectiveness of dopamine in your brain. Increasing alertness, decision-making capability, cognition and motivation.
- Piracetam – The first racetam ever developed, this nootropic modulates AMPA and NMDA receptors.[xii] And boosts the flow of acetylcholine (ACh), sensitivity and density of ACh receptors in your brain.
Piracetam also boosts cerebral blood flow. Delivering more oxygen and nutrients to neurons. Improving neural signaling, cognition, memory, focus and motivation.
- Pramiracetam – A derivative of and more potent than Piracetam, Pramiracetam stimulates choline uptake in your brain. And has a profound effect on the synthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh).[xiii] Boosting energy levels, providing focused stimulation for better mental drive and motivation.
- Resveratrol – Resveratrol is a polyphenol that some plants produce in response to stress, such as injury or fungal infection. Recent research shows this polyphenol works like an ampakine nootropic in the brain.
Resveratrol is an inhibitor of enzyme PDE4 (Phosphodiesterase-4).[xiv] Studies demonstrate that when you inhibit PDE4, you raise levels of cAMP in the brain. cAMP-dependent pathways in the brain activate AMPK (AMP-activated protein kinase).
Inhibiting PDE4 and boosting cAMP also makes the effect of normal dopamine production more effective. Boosting processes in this stream of chemical pathways in the brain increases learning, memory and motivation.
- Rhodiola Rosea – In Russia, Rhodiola Rosea is widely used as a remedy for fatigue, poor concentration, and decreased memory. It’s also believed to make workers more productive. Research shows Rhodiola can increase attention to detail-oriented tasks by improving concentration over a prolonged period. The ideal study nootropic.
Rhodiola Rosea stimulates your nervous system to fight fatigue that stifles mental clarity. And studies show it even saves injured neurons. And encourages the growth and development of brain cells (neurogenesis).[xv]
Any kind of fatigue you experience – regardless of source – Rhodiola Rosea is like your “magic bullet”. Mood, energy, stamina, concentration and motivation can all increase with a dose of this herb.
- Sulbutiamine – Synthesized in the lab from Vitamin B1 (thiamine), Sulbutiamine is another favorite of mine because it boosts memory, motivation and is a heck of an antidepressant.
Thiamine is essential for producing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh).[xvi] ACh is used to relay messages between neurons in your brain. And is critical for cognition, learning, memory and motivation.
Final Notes on Motivation
If you’ve ever felt mentally drained after writing an exam, an intense study session, a misunderstanding with your partner, or working out a business problem – nootropics can help.
Energy and motivation go hand-in-hand.
When I’m energized, it usually translates into motivation to get things done. When energy stores are depleted in my brain and body, I’m burned out and nothing much is going to happen.
Mental fatigue has a variety of causes. Depleted neurotransmitters can cause fatigue as well as a host of other issues. A lack of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) which is the energy source for brain cells is another cause of mental fatigue. And leads to neurodegenerative disease.
Hormones that are out of balance can cause fatigue. And poor cerebral circulation which provides oxygen and nutrients to brain cells can result in fatigue.
The amount of available mental energy has a direct influence on cognitive performance.
So once you get familiar with how motivation pathways work in your brain. And you have a good grasp on how to fix motivation in your brain. Take a look at an earlier post where I’ve got a section on how to boost energy here.
[iii] Qi J., Zhang S., Wang H.L., Wang H., de Jesus Aceves Buendia J., Hoffman A.F., Lupica C.R., Seal R.P., Morales M. “A glutamatergic reward input from the dorsal raphe to ventral tegmental area dopamine neurons.” Nature Communications. 2014 Nov 12;5:5390. (source)
[iv] Berridge K.C., Robinson T.E. “What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?” Brain Research; Brain Research Reviews. 1998 Dec;28(3):309-69. (source)
[vi] Peterson A.L., Gilman T.L., Banks M.L., Sprague J.E. “Hypothyroidism alters striatal dopamine release mediated by 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, ecstasy).” Synapse. 2006 Apr;59(5):317-9. (source)
[vii] Malenka R.C., Kauer J.A., Perkel D.J., Nicoll R.A. “The impact of postsynaptic calcium on synaptic transmission — its role in long-term potentiation” Trends in Neurosciences Volume 12, Issue 11, p444–450, 1989 (source)
[viii] Moriguchi S., Han F., Shioda N., Yamamoto Y., Nakajima T., Nakagawasai O., Tadano T., Yeh JZ, Narahashi T., Fukunaga K. “Nefiracetam activation of CaM kinase II and protein kinase C mediated by NMDA and metabotropic glutamate receptors in olfactory bulbectomized mice.” Journal of Neurochemistry. 2009 Jul;110(1):170-81 (source)
[ix] Ostrovskaya R.U., Gudasheva T.A., Zaplina A.P., Vahitova J.V., Salimgareeva M.H., Jamidanov R.S., Seredenin S.B. “Noopept stimulates the expression of NGF and BDNF in rat hippocampus.”Bulletin of Experimental Biology and Medicine. 2008 Sep;146(3):334-7. (source)
[x] Copani A., Genazzani A.A., Aleppo G., Casabona G., Canonico P.L., Scapagnini U., Nicoletti F. “Nootropic drugs positively modulate alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid-sensitive glutamate receptors in neuronal cultures.” Journal of Neurochemistry. 1992 Apr;58(4):1199-204. (source)
[xi] Firstova Y.Y., Abaimov D.A., Kapitsa I.G., Voronina T.A., Kovalev G.I. “The effects of scopolamine and the nootropic drug phenotropil on rat brain neurotransmitter receptors during testing of the conditioned passive avoidance task” Neurochemical Journal June 2011, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp 115-125 (source)
[xii] Stoll L., Schubert T., Müller W.E. “Age-related deficits of central muscarinic cholinergic receptor function in the mouse: partial restoration by chronic piracetam treatment.” Neurobiology of Aging. 1992 Jan-Feb;13(1):39-44. (source)
[xiii] Brust P. “Reversal of scopolamine-induced alterations of choline transport across the blood-brain barrier by the nootropics piracetam and pramiracetam.” Arzneimittelforschung. 1989 Oct;39(10):1220-2. (source)
[xiv] Li Y.F., Cheng Y.F., Huang Y., Conti M., Wilson S.P., O’Donnell J.M., Zhang H.T. “Phosphodiesterase-4D knock-out and RNA interference-mediated knock-down enhance memory and increase hippocampal neurogenesis via increased cAMP signaling.” Journal of Neuroscience. 2011 Jan 5;31(1):172-83 (source)
[xvi] Martin P.R., Singleton C.K., Hiller-Sturmhofel S. “The Role of Thiamine Deficiency in Alcoholic Brain Disease” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism nih.gov Retrieved April 7, 2016 (source)