Nootropics for Verbal Fluency
Some people are born with great verbal fluency, while others need to invest a great deal to achieve the levels of verbal fluency they desire. Having great verbal fluency can take you very far in life with public speaking, sales, relationships, and networking, etc, so it’s an aspect of cognitive function worth investing in.
For example, the legendary NFL commentator Jim Nantz can talk continuously during the game without the need to pause and think about what to say afterwards. On the other hand, an extremely nervous student presenting to class may struggle to find the right words, stuttering, and pausing with a bunch of “umms” and “ahhs” in front of an audience. You have probably seen both examples in real life and wondered what makes them different.
What is verbal fluency?
Verbal fluency describes your ability to produce words quickly and accurately when speaking or writing. In other words, verbal fluency determines the ease with which you can access your mental vocabulary and choose the appropriate words. The better your verbal fluency is, the better you can deliver your message competently, with minimal hesitation and a great deal of trustworthiness.
The very first ingredient of verbal fluency is having a large mental vocabulary to choose words from. These words can be either phonemic or semantic.
Phonemic fluency allows you to recall words that begin with a specific letter. For example, try to list as many words as you can that begin with the letter “P” within a minute. You might be able to generate more words at the beginning of the test than toward the end of it. This is normal.
Semantic fluency involves recalling words that belong to a certain category. For instance, with “fruits”, you might say “banana”, “apple” or “grapes”.
The phonemic and semantic fluency tasks described here can give us an idea of one’s fluency level. While there is no one right grade on these tests, the higher your score, the better your verbal fluency will be.
Bear in mind that verbal fluency goes beyond producing words–it also involves other mental processes. This brings us to the second ingredient of verbal fluency which is executive function.
#2 Executive function: brain processes and regions involved in verbal fluency
Executive function (EF) is your brain’s ability to regulate thoughts and guide your behavior toward a goal. Just like how you can be reading this article now, checking your phone, replying to some messages, and thinking of what to eat for dinner, you are using your EF. You are focusing your attention on reading, juggling multiple tasks, and controlling your impulses to order a pizza rather than cooking a healthy dinner!
To have verbal fluency, you have to access your word store, search it for a word that fits the category, avoid repetition, and be quick. These processes are all part of your executive function, which you need to achieve better verbal fluency.
In order for you to produce words, you activate multiple brain regions depending on the task requirements.
In a neuroimaging study involving 505 healthy individuals, phonemic fluency relied mainly on the activation of the left frontal lobe of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex. Whereas, the left temporal and parietal lobes mediated semantic fluency. This distinction in activating brain regions in different fluency tasks is not coincidental. Phonemic fluency tasks rely mainly on executive function and thus, the frontal lobe. Semantic fluency requires the additional step of searching within the vocabulary store in the temporal lobe to retrieve a word in a specific category.
How do brain neurotransmitters contribute to verbal fluency?
To carry out the EF processes needed for verbal fluency and to achieve the required brain activity, neurotransmitters come into play. Neurotransmitters are brain messengers that help neurons communicate and relay messages. They can be:
- Excitatory, having stimulating properties like glutamate
- Inhibitory, which inhibit neuronal activity like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
- Both excitatory and inhibitory like dopamine
Glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter, whereas GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter. Therefore, their balance in the brain is critical for supporting your verbal fluency. Excess glutamate can over-excite and kill neurons through excitotoxicity. GABA is the neurotransmitter that keeps glutamate in check and prevents excitotoxicity.
Glutamate (Glu), the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain, contributes to our learning process, memory formation and EF needed for verbal fluency. Thus, Glu is present mainly in brain regions responsible for the aforementioned functions such as the cerebral cortex, hippocampus, and thalamus.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter that reduces the excitability of neurons. If your brain was a “car”, then GABA would function as the “brakes”. This messenger is responsible for your feelings of relaxation and calmness.
In addition to its calming effect on the brain, GABA is crucial for faster information processing and normal cognitive function.
For the best verbal fluency, you need all three GABA functions, including:
- To be relaxed and in the flow
- Faster information processing
- Healthy cognitive functions
A few studies confirmed the positive effects of high GABA in the following brain regions on verbal fluency and cognition:
- In the cerebellar hemisphere, higher GABA was associated with better performance on two verbal fluency tasks, the semantic fluency and the Controlled Word Fluency test, in 21 healthy individuals.
- In the middle frontal lobe, higher GABA was linked with better overall cognition, tested by the Montreal Cognitive Assessment test in 94 healthy adults.
- In the frontal lobe, higher GABA was linked to fewer distractions and better focus in 12 healthy adults..
These studies show the importance of increased GABA inhibition during verbal fluency tasks and cognitive processes. Inhibitory neurotransmission in the prefrontal cortex may partly explain why acute alcohol consumption improves verbal fluency
Dopamine (DA) is mostly known as the “pleasure” neurotransmitter and it is a part of the reward system in your brain. As such, DA is involved in reward processing, motivation, decision-making, and movement. Importantly, DA mediates verbal fluency performance by affecting the connection between the frontal lobe and the striatum, known as the cortico-striatal loop.
In a clinical trial, 20 healthy elderly subjects took Piribedil (50 mg), a drug that acts like dopamine, for two months. These subjects did better on the phonemic verbal fluency task compared to 20 volunteers who did not take it. These results are consistent with reduced fluency in older people due to dopamine decline. This also correlates with the decline in working memory and higher cognitive functions.
Brain glutamate, GABA, and dopamine tend to decrease with age, which may account for some age-related cognitive decline. Thus, supporting brain health is needed to preserve your mental abilities and strengthen an existing weakness in a certain domain like public speaking abilities.
How to improve verbal fluency with food and supplements
Now that you understand what verbal fluency is and how brain regions and NT come together to make it happen, here are neuroscience-based ways to improve verbal fluency.
GABA is naturally present as an amino acid in many vegetables and fruits such as:
Several clinical studies have administered GABA as a food supplement to healthy individuals and tested their beneficial effects on brain activity and mental skills.
13 healthy individuals with a history of acrophobia (fear of heights) received 100 mg of PharmaGABA, a type of GABA supplement produced by natural fermentation. The participants experienced increased relaxation, which allows the brain to concentrate and focus better. The researchers detected the relaxation in the brain as increased alpha waves, which occur when you are awake and quietly resting or meditating. These healthy individuals also had decreased beta waves, which are present during stressful situations, where you have to focus and solve a problem.
Cacao and chocolate
Did you know that chocolate and GABA can improve flow during stressful situations.
12 healthy individuals who ate 10 g of GABA-enriched chocolate before a math task, recovered from the task stress faster than those who did not have any. This simply means that eating GABA-rich chocolate helped the participants shift from a stressful state during the math task to a normal state.
Food supplements and brain boosters in the form of “nootropics” have been a favorite for many students and professionals who want to boost their brain function, while maintaining a healthier diet. It is another route you can follow to enhance your verbal fluency skills.
Aniracetam is a fat-soluble product that can modulate AMPA receptors in the brain. This nootropic can enhance memory and learning. Aniracetam works by enhancing the function of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Additional effects include increasing oxygen consumption in the brain.
Tyrosine is an essential amino acid that provides a building block for neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. These neurotransmitters can be depleted when we are exposed to stressful situations.
Supplements such as tyrosine can help replenish this pool of three neurotransmitters and restore the mental energy to create alertness and focus. For example, whey is a protein that’s rich in tyrosine and is formed as a byproduct of cheese formation. 101 healthy individuals who took 1 g of whey protein supplement for 12 weeks performed better on the semantic fluency test, compared to subjects taking a placebo.
Rhodiola, or golden rose, is an adaptogenic herb that can support energy, improve mood, and balanced stress response. 8 participants received 200 mg of Rhodiola rosea before and after lunch over 14 days. These participants reported a reduction in their stress, anger, and confusion. The effects of this medicinal plant are mediated by changes in dopamine and serotonin levels, which can boost mood and promote relaxation.
Curcumin is a flavonoid extracted from turmeric. It acts as a neuroprotector and can improve mental function. It also increases BDNF, supporting neurogenesis. 80 individuals with ages ranging from 50-80 years, took 80 mg of curcumin for 12 weeks. The participants showed improved working memory and reduced fatigue and stress. Another study followed 2734 participants who regularly consumed curcumin-rich curry for 4.5 years. Participants who consumed curcumin more than once a month performed better on the verbal fluency task compared to others who did not.
Planning and practicing
By taking the time to practice and plan, words come to you easily. Planning can take several different forms, such as rehearsing, taking a video of yourself while talking, and through imagined interactions. With these steps, you can ensure that words will flow confidently and fluently and will improve verbal fluency.
By rehearsing for a topic, the silent pauses often filled with “ums” will be greatly reduced. You will also be training your mental dictionary, especially semantic fluency. This enables you to easily access words covering the topic of your speech or presentation.
Taking a video of your speech and watching it again, can improve both your presentation skills and verbal fluency. Judging yourself can be helpful sometimes! This strategy will give you greater control over your speech and will help you avoid surprises during the real deal!
Imagined interactions can reduce fear and anxiety associated with public speaking. This exercise is about imagining a future conversation with others. Through creating cognitive scripts in your mind, disfluencies can be reduced and your speech performance will improve. You will be able to directly address the anxiety and nervousness that may arise from the anticipated encounter, and thus reduce it.
Verbal fluency is a highly sought-after aspect of cognitive function that can take you very far in life. So, it’s worth investing in both in terms of practicing and supplemental support. Take our Nootopia Quiz today to identify your neurotransmitter patterns and find out which stack works best for you.
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