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Top Ways to Improve Focus and Attention

Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Last updated:
Evguenia Alechine
Puya Yazdi
Medically reviewed by
Evguenia Alechine, PhD (Biochemistry), Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Last updated:

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The ability to focus your attention plays a role in many things – from studying for a test to positive social interactions. Attention deficits can be related to disorders or have other underlying factors. In this article, we dig deeper into what exactly focus is, and ways to improve it.

What Is Attention?

Attention is the ability to take notice of something or someone. If you focus on something, that means that you are paying particular attention to something.

Forms of Attention

Sustained attention: the ability to focus cognitive function on specific stimuli.

Selective Attention: the ability to pick one thing to focus on while filtering out stimuli.

Task-switching: the ability to switch between tasks back and forth.

Visual Attention: a type of attention that allows us to deal with capacity problems by selecting relevant, and filtering irrelevant information. Visual attention has 3 subtypes including:

  • Spatial: selectively processing visual information through prioritizing an area in your visual field.
  • Feature-based: enhances how you perceive an image’s characteristics (useful for filtering out stimuli).
  • Object-based: the relationship between an object and selective attention, suggesting enhanced visual processing of that object’s feature.

Brain Networks in Focus/Attention

The Prefrontal Cortex plays a role in executive functions including [1]:

  • Sustained Attention
  • Short term memory tasks
  • Motor attention
  • Working memory
  • Planning
  • Flexibility
  • Detecting stimulus/completing tasks
  • Inhibitor control of interference
  • Delayed responding
  • Set shifting
  • Active problem solving

While these brain areas are needed to complete tasks at hand, they’re not necessarily involved in concentrating itself.

The Salience Network may be responsible for determining what is most important from incoming information and deciding what requires your focus.

Salience Network

The Salience Network includes three structures [2]:

  • Amygdala
  • Ventral Striatum
  • The Substantia Nigra/Ventral Tegmental Area

The Salience Network selects specific stimuli for additional processing from a constant stream of input information.

Saliency detection mechanisms in the brain are at the core of this process and split into two general mechanisms.

  1. A fast, automatic “primitive” mechanism for filtering out stimuli based on their senses.
  2. A high-order system for competitive circumstantial specific stimulus selection. This increases resources for goal driven-behaviors based on what is most important at the given time.

It’s important to note that salience (importance of stimuli) may vary between individuals.

The Saliency Network plays a crucial role in identifying the most biologically and cognitive relevant internal and external stimuli to prioritize and guide behavior.

Structural Brain Changes and Brain Chemicals that Affect Focus

Dopamine: it plays a role in diseases with attentional impairments like ADHD and Alzheimer’s. It is a key neurotransmitter in behavioral adaption and preparing voluntary attention [3].

Noradrenaline: it plays a role in many forms of attention. Stimulant medications also release a combination of noradrenaline and dopamine [4].

Cholinergic treatments (AMPA receptors/acetylcholine, phosphatidylcholine, nicotinic acetylcholine receptors): they improve attention impairments in conditions where the choline system is dysfunctional and also in healthy subjects [5, 6].

Beta/Alpha waves: these are both associated with attentional processes and other basic cognitive functions [7].

Cortical thickness: this is reduced in aging and in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Increasing cortical thickness improves focus, perceiving internal experience, sensory processing, and executive functions [8, 9].

Nitric oxide/Increasing brain blood flow: regional blood flow changes are noted in people with ADHD. Additionally, decreased blood flow is associated with cognitive impairments in other diseases [10, 11].

BDNF: low BDNF is associated with ADHD, and plays a role in working memory directly associated with selective attention [12, 13].

Testosterone: low levels in aging or hypogonadism are associated with cognitive impairments of all kinds including focus. Raising levels to artificial extremes likely will cause cognitive problems, rather than improvements [14].

Myelination: it is associated with a range of cognitive functions, including attention [15, 16].

Klotho: mouse bred with higher levels of klotho perform better on learning tests and had higher resistance to oxidative stress [17, 18].

Oxidative Stress: reduced oxidative stress helps improve ADHD symptoms [19].

Lifestyle Changes

The following lifestyle interventions may help you improve your focus and attention. Although most of them have multiple health benefits, remember to talk to your doctor before making any major changes to your lifestyle and diet. Importantly, consult a doctor if you have severe inattention or you notice no effects after trying these complementary strategies.

1) Exercise

Regular aerobic exercise showed improvement in focus, task switching, selective attention, and attentional deficits associated with ADHD in multiple clinical trials [20, 21, 22].

Exercise improves areas that contribute to the ability to focus, including [23]:

  • Sleep quality
  • Stamina and endurance
  • Response to stress
  • Energy levels
  • Vigilance

Given its multiple health benefits, it’s a good idea to do more exercise whether you want to improve your attention or not.

Exercise Mechanisms

  • Increases klotho, which can help with memory and brain function [24, 25].
  • Increases BDNF, which improves memory and selective attention [26].

2) Sleep

Poor sleep impairs cognitive areas such as attention, memory, creativity, language and numerical skills, and executive function [27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32].

Sleep interventions improved cognitive performance and overall well-being in 4 clinical trials on almost 700 children with ADHD [33, 34, 35, 36].

Whether you have ADHD or simply want to improve your attention and focus, getting a good night’s sleep is always a good idea and has multiple other benefits. Read this post to learn how to fix your sleep.

3) Spending Time in Nature

While urban environments cause mental fatigue because they require us to constantly use or voluntary attention, outdoor environments in nature only rely on the more relaxing involuntary attention.

In a clinical trial on 17 children with ADHD, concentration and attention performance improved after a 20-minute walk in the park but not in urban settings. Similarly, over 500 parents of children with ADHD responding to 2 surveys reported symptom improvement after outdoor activities [37, 38+, 39].

Another advantage of outdoor activities is that the increased sun exposure stimulates the production of vitamin D, a nutrient also proven to improve attention capacity [40, 41, 42].

4) Meditation

Experienced meditators were less affected by distracting sounds compared to beginner meditators in several trials [43].

Intense meditation improved perception skills (such as differing between two musical tones) and sustained attention in a study of 60 participants [44].

Meditation also increases the ability to switch focus between tasks, enhances the ability to process information when learning new things, and improves measures of all attentional tasks (in elderly) compared to non-meditators [45, 8].

Meditation Mechanisms

  • Increases brain blood flow [8]
  • Increases cortical thickness in the brain. Decreased cortical thickness is associated with disease and aging [8]
  • Improves myelination [8]
  • Increases BDNF [8]
  • Reduces 5-HT2A activation in the default mode network [46]

5) Eating More Omega-3 Fatty Acids

ADHD is associated with low omega-3 to omega-6 levels in the blood and cell membranes. Dietary fatty acids such as EPA and DHA restored normal omega-3 levels in 6 clinical trials on over 700 children with ADHD, resulting in improved attention, working memory, learning capacity, and behavior [47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52].

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Fish and other seafood (such as mackerel, salmon, tuna, sardines, and oysters)
  • Nuts and seeds (such as walnuts and chia seeds)
  • Plant oils (such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oil)
  • Fortified foods (such as juices, soy beverages, and dairies)

Prescription Drugs

If you are diagnosed with a condition with impaired attention (e.g., ADHD), your doctor may prescribe any of the following drugs. Only take these drugs if prescribed by a licensed physician and carefully follow their recommendations.

Approved Stimulant Medication

1) Adderall and Vyvanse

Adderall is a pharmaceutical mix of levoamphetamine and dextroamphetamine used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Vyvanse is another amphetamine-based drug for ADHD that is only made up of lisdexamfetamine dimesylate [53, 54].

They both improve symptoms of ADHD, including [55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68]:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty maintaining focus while distracted
  • Difficulty sustaining attention
  • Delayed reaction time
  • Loss of short-term memory
  • Decreased cognitive function
  • Difficulty shifting attention between tasks

However, Adderall is widely abused, and long-term abuse may cause brain toxicity [69].

Adderall Mechanisms

2) Ritalin (Methylphenidate)

Ritalin is a stimulant used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. It improved working memory, sustained attention, and reaction time in 14 trials on over 800 children with ADHD [72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85].

It is important not to exceed the minimum effective dose when using stimulants. Higher doses are associated with more errors when completing tasks [86].

Ritalin Mechanisms

  • Blocks the dopamine reuptake transporter [87].
  • Increases dopamine response duration [87].

Approved Non-Stimulant Medication

3) Atomoxetine

Atomoxetine was the first non-stimulant drug approved for the treatment of ADHD. It increases norepinephrine and dopamine levels in the prefrontal cortex by blocking their transporters [88, 89].

Atomoxetine improved cognitive function, especially attention and working memory, in 13 trials on over 800 children and almost 2500 adults [90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102].

4) Norepinephrine Receptor Activators

Clonidine and guanfacine are alpha-2 (a receptor that norepinephrine and epinephrine bind to) activators prescribed alternatively to or with stimulant medications for ADHD [103, 89].

Clonidine improved inattention in 6 clinical trials on almost 600 children with ADHD, especially in combination with stimulants. A meta-analysis found it less effective than stimulants and with more side effects (especially drowsiness) [104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110+].

Guanfacine is less well-researched but improved inattention and was well tolerated in 4 clinical trials on over 800 children and a small trial on 17 adults with ADHD [111, 112, 113, 114, 115].

Guanfacine also improved attention in rats and decreased distractions in aged monkeys [89, 116].

Guanfacine Mechanisms

  • Mimics norepinephrine at the a2a receptor [89]
  • Enhances brain blood flow in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex [89]

Off-Label Medication for ADHD

The following drugs are approved for other conditions than ADHD by the FDA but are prescribed by some doctors off-label to people who don’t respond to conventional medicines for ADHD.

5) Modafinil

Modafinil is a wakefulness-promoting drug used in the treatment of narcolepsy.

It significantly improved attention in a clinical trial on 248 people with ADHD within one week and the improvement continued throughout the 9-week study [117, 118].

Similarly, it improved ADHD symptoms in 2 clinical trials on 210 children [119, 120].

Modafinil may have advantages over current ADHD treatment due to less potential for addiction and the need to only take it once a day [121].

Modafinil Mechanisms

  • Increases orexin [122]
  • Moderately inhibits the dopamine transporter (DAT) and norepinephrine transporter (NET) [122]

6) Selegiline (L-Deprenyl)

Selegiline is a selective irreversible MAO-B inhibitor and an MAO-A inhibitor at higher doses.

MAO inhibitors are dangerous when combined with various medications (barbiturates, morphine, etc.), supplements, and even foods high in tyramine. People with liver disease should also refrain from taking MAO inhibitors [123].

Selegiline metabolizes into methamphetamine and amphetamine stimulant compounds [124].

Methylphenidate and Selegiline were equally efficient in improving attention (teacher and parent ADHD rating scale test) in a clinical trial on 28 children with ADHD, but Selegiline had fewer side effects [124].

Selegiline improved sustained attention, hyperactivity, and peer interactions associated with ADHD in another trial on 11 children [125].

Selegiline (L-Deprenyl) Mechanisms

  • Enhances Dopamine D1 and D2 receptors [126]
  • Increases dopamine levels [127]
  • Inhibits MAO-B at low doses, preventing the breakdown of beta-phenylethylamine, dopamine, tyramine, and benzylamine [128, 129]
  • At higher doses inhibits MAO-A, preventing the breakdown of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and tyramine [128, 130, 131]

7) Bupropion

Bupropion is an antidepressant that increases the levels of both dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain by blocking their reuptake. It improved ADHD symptoms in 2 clinical trials on 219 adults with this condition [132, 133].

8) Other Drugs

Other drugs that improved attention in clinical trials on people with ADHD include:

  • Tricyclic antidepressants (such as desipramine and nortriptyline) [134, 135]
  • Antipsychotics (such as aripiprazole and risperidone) [136, 137]
  • Nicotine receptor activators [138, 139]

Over-The-Counter Supplements

The following supplements may help you improve your attention and focus. However, their medicinal use has not been approved by the FDA due to the lack of solid research. Supplements should not be used in place of medication prescribed for you by your doctor. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements to avoid potentially dangerous interactions

1) Caffeine

L-theanine and caffeine is a commonly used combination, or stack, in the nootropic community. The combination of L-theanine and caffeine significantly increased accuracy in switching attention between tasks in a clinical trial on 44 young adults [140].

Caffeine alone (75 mg/150 mg) increased alertness in a clinical trial on 50 fully-rested and partially sleep-deprived subjects [141].

Caffeine can [142]:

  • Boost energy
  • Increase daily energy expenditure
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Decrease sense of effort associated with physical activity
  • Improve motor performance
  • Improve cognitive performance
  • Increase wakefulness
  • Reduce mental fatigue
  • Quicken reactions and improve accuracy on tasks
  • Improve concentration
  • Help solve reasoning problems
  • Improve ability to make correct decisions

Caffeine Mechanisms

  • Blocks adenosine receptors (A1R, A2aR, A2bR, and A3R) [143]
  • Inhibits phosphodiesterase enzymes and increases cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) [143]

2) Nicotine

Nicotine is addictive and poses many health risks. Safer methods of consuming nicotine than smoking include snus, patches, gum/lozenges, and vaping (these reduce the harm of smoke inhalation but do not remove the risk of addiction).

Nicotine improved attention deficits in several trials on patients with ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia [144, 145].

Nicotine showed improvement in a variety of forms of attention including [144, 146, 147]:

  • Sustained attention
  • Switching attention between tasks
  • Selective attention
  • Accuracy completing tasks
  • Visual attention

Although nicotine may provide acute boosts of focus, abstinence in chronic smokers causes difficulty concentrating and impairment of sustained attention [148, 147].

Nicotine Mechanisms

  • Increases brain blood flow in the parieto-occipital region [146]
  • Activates nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (α2-α10 and β2-β4), increases dopamine levels and releases glutamate, acetylcholine, and dopamine in the prefrontal cortex [147]
  • Increases long-term potentiation, strengthening connections between neurons [149]

3) Tyrosine

Tyrosine is a precursor to l-dopa, the precursor to dopamine, found mainly in high protein foods, or supplements. It can reverse cognitive deficits due to depleted dopamine [150].

Tyrosine improved stress-induced impairments of attention and multitasking [150].

Tyrosine Mechanisms

  • Converts L-dopa to dopamine through the tyrosine hydroxylase enzyme [150]

4) Citicoline (CDP-Choline)

Citicoline is a naturally occurring intermediate in the creation of phosphatidylcholine from choline.

In several trials on people with cognitive impairment associated with stroke and diseases of the vessels, citicoline improved [151]:

  • Attention
  • Ability to interact with the environment combining senses and motor skills
  • Behavioral and emotional control
  • Executive functions
  • Temporal orientation

Citicoline also improved cognitive function and impulsivity associated with chronic marijuana use in a pilot study on 19 smokers [152].

CDP-Choline Mechanisms

  • Enhances acetylcholine synthesis [153]
  • Increases phosphatidylcholine, which helps protect nerve cell membranes [153]
  • May alleviate free fatty acid-induced toxicity associated with stroke [153]

5) Ginseng

Ginseng is an herbal supplement that has a large range of potential cognitive function-enhancing and health benefits. It may improve attention, learning, and mental processing [154].

Although it cannot treat ADHD, ginseng showed potential as an addition to current treatment in a clinical trial on 18 people [155].

Ginsenosides (Rb1, Rg1, Rg5, and Rk) improve hyperactivity [155].

Ginseng Mechanisms

  • Ginsenosides increase norepinephrine and dopamine (cortex) [155].

6) Other Supplements

The following supplements also improved attention in clinical trials:

Non-FDA-Regulated Supplements and Research Chemicals

The following drugs are classified as new, unapproved drugs by the FDA due to the lack of solid clinical research. Although some studies suggest they may help improve focus and attention, remember that there is no safe dosage for them and they pose a significant safety risk. We highly advise against the use of these substances.

1) Racetams

The effect of racetams varies significantly from person to person. Supplementing choline in combination with racetams showed better results in animal studies [169, 170].

Piracetam

Piracetam is the most well-studied racetam. It improved continuous, selective, and divided attention in a clinical trial on 80 children (60% response rate in 30 children receiving 70 mg/kg, 43% when receiving 40 mg/kg) with ADHD [171].

A single dosage (2.4g) of Piracetam compared to 4.8 or 9.6 g increased cooperativity between functional brain processes, suggesting a lower dose may be more effective, in a small trial on 12 healthy volunteers [172].

Piracetam improved cognitive function in a clinical trial on 64 men undergoing bypass surgery [173].

Piracetam Mechanisms

  • Increases blood flow to the brain [174]
  • Increase cell membrane permeability [175]
  • Improves the brain’s ability to form and reorganize connections between neurons [176]
  • Increases oxygen consumption to the brain [177, 178]
  • Protects against mitochondrial dysfunction [179]

Oxiracetam

Oxiracetam is a mild stimulant and nootropic. It improved test scores in attention, consistency, and concentration in multiple trials on people with ADHD and mild to moderate dementia [180, 181, 182, 183, 184, 185, 186].

Oxiracetam Mechanisms

  • Increases acetylcholine use (in rats) [187]
  • Increases choline use (in the hippocampus) [187]
  • Enhances the activity of choline pathways (septohippocampal) and the cortical choline network [187]

Phenylpiracetam

Phenylpiracetam is piracetam with a phenyl ring attached, increasing its potency.

It improved impairments of cognitive function in a clinical trial on 99 patients with brain lesions, including:

  • Depression
  • Impaired motor coordination
  • Lack of Attention
  • Difficulty counting

Patients also displayed increased energy and daily activity, possibly due to its stimulating effects [188].

Phenylpiracetam has not been well-studied in clinical trials. Users report an increase in focus, mood, and reaction times. Some people claim the improvement in focus are not as prominent as its mood-boosting effects [189, 190, 191].

Phenylpiracetam Mechanisms

  • Increased brain alpha/beta waves [188].

Pramiracetam

Pramiracetam is a stimulating, cognitive function-enhancing drug belonging to the Racetam class.

Although it is a less studied racetam in regards to benefits to focus, it is often considered the strongest racetam. In a clinical trial on 24 men, pramiracetam reduced the negative effects of scopolamine on memory and attention [192].

In another trial, piracetam improved word recall in men with brain damage [193].

Users report:

  • Extremely sharp focus, and increased depth of focus
  • Improved logical reasoning ability
  • Improved ability to handle tedious tasks
  • Ability to produce higher quality material when completing assignments
  • Increase in productivity

Some users also claim Pramiracetam to be the closest nootropic to a pharmaceutical stimulant. Like with most racetams, some users report little or no benefit [194, 195, 196, 197].

Possible Mechanisms:

  • Activates choline receptors [198]
  • Increases nitric oxide production [198]

2) Semax

Semax is a Russian-developed drug prescribed primarily for its cognitive function-enhancing effects. Preliminary research (mostly in rodents) suggests it can improve selective attention [199].

Users find that Semax is effective in increasing focus, and clarity. Note that some users report no effects [200, 201, 202].

Semax Mechanisms

  • Increases BDNF (in rat hippocampus and frontal cortex) [203].
  • Increases serotonin (striatal) [204].
  • Increases resistance to hypoxia [203].

3) Noopept

Noopept is a peptide used to increase cognitive function. Its ability to increase beta waves suggests it may improve attentive ability and visual attention [205, 206].

It improved cognitive function in a clinical trial on 60 patients recovering from strokes. However, the study hasn’t been translated from Russian and we cannot access its specifics for a critical analysis [207].

Users report subtle improvements in [208, 209, 210]:

  • Focus
  • Alertness
  • Mental sharpness

Some users don’t experience positive effects, but it seems to be well-tolerated. Some users have reported being more sensitive to negative emotions.

Noopept Mechanisms

  • May increase alpha/beta1 activity in all brain regions [205]
  • Stimulates BDNF in the hippocampus [205]
  • Increases choline levels [205]
  • Reduces oxidative stress and improves the ability of antioxidant systems [205]

4) PRL-8-53

PRL-8-53 is a compound derived from phenylethylamine.

In a clinical trial on 47 healthy participants, PRL-8-53 enhanced learning ability (word recall) [211].

Users report PRL-8-53 works best in people with existing cognitive deficits. Some report mild stimulant properties. Other users report no benefit or negative experiences [212, 213].

Possible Mechanisms:

  • Increases choline response [211]
  • Increases dopamine sensitivity [211]

5) Sunifiram

Sunifiram is an experimental derivative of racetams, with significantly higher potency than piracetam, the first racetam synthesized. This drug has only been tested in animal studies, meaning there is no evidence (aside from anecdotes) of its effectiveness in humans.

In rats, sunifiram increased learning ability and had beneficial effects on cognitive function [214].

Users report benefits such as [215, 213, 216]:

  • Improved focus
  • Easier to shift attention between tasks
  • Stimulating properties
  • Better mood

However, users also report side effects such as [215, 213, 216]:

  • Intensity
  • Significant anxiety
  • Blood pressure issues
  • Short duration of positive effects
  • Even reports of psychotic episodes

Users recommended increasing the dosage slowly.

Sunifiram Mechanisms

  • Increases acetylcholine (in rat cortex) [214]
  • Increases activity at AMPA receptors [214]

About the Author

Carlos Tello

Carlos Tello

PhD (Molecular Biology)
Carlos received his PhD and MS from the Universidad de Sevilla.
Carlos spent 9 years in the laboratory investigating mineral transport in plants. He then started working as a freelancer, mainly in science writing, editing, and consulting. Carlos is passionate about learning the mechanisms behind biological processes and communicating science to both academic and non-academic audiences. He strongly believes that scientific literacy is crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid falling for scams.

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