Does this brain hack really work?
Updated: Jun 11, 2019
Editor: K. Grisham
The idea that a pill can supersize human intelligence is decidedly science fiction. But plenty of real-world researchers and drug-makers are working to develop nootropics: pills, supplements and other substances designed to improve various aspects of cognition.
A rough translation for the word “nootropic” comes from the Greek for “to bend or shape the mind.” And already, there are dozens of over-the-counter (OTC) products—many of which are sold widely online or in stores—that claim to boost creativity, memory, decision-making or other high-level brain functions. Some of the most popular supplements are a mixture of food-derived vitamins, lipids, phytochemicals and antioxidants that studies have linked to healthy brain function. One popular pick on Amazon, for example, is an encapsulated cocktail of omega-3s, B vitamins and plant-derived compounds that its maker claims can improve memory, concentration and focus.
But do “smart pills” really work?
Many of these supplements include exotic-sounding ingredients. Ginseng root and an herb called bacopa are two that have shown some promising memory and attention benefits, says Dr. Guillaume Fond, a psychiatrist with France’s Aix-Marseille University Medical School who has studied smart drugs and cognitive enhancement.
Many of the food-derived ingredients that are often included in nootropics—omega-3s in particular, but also flavonoids—do seem to improve brain health and function. Eating fatty fish, berries and other healthy foods that are high in these nutrients appears to be good for your brain.
“Supplements cannot replicate the complexity of natural food and provide all its potential benefits,” says Dr. Hogan, author of that review and a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary in Canada. However, can they be an added help?
Hogan says their beneficial effects are in many ways cumulative—meaning the brain perks don’t emerge unless you’ve been eating them for long periods of time.
Medical researchers have admitted the potential for some OTC nootropics to improve memory, focus or other aspects of cognition.
For example, certain pharmaceuticals that also qualify as nootropics. For at least the past 20 years, a lot of people—students, especially—have turned to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drugs like Ritalin and Adderall for their supposed concentration-strengthening effects. While there’s some evidence that these stimulants can improve focus in people without ADHD, they have also been linked, in both people with and without an ADHD diagnosis, to insomnia and hallucinations in some cases.
More recently, the drug modafinil (brand name: Provigil) has become the brain-booster of choice for a growing number of Americans. According to the FDA, modafinil is intended to bolster “wakefulness” in people with narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea or shift work disorder. But when people without those conditions take it, it has been linked with improvements in alertness, energy, focus and decision-making. A 2017 study found evidence that modafinil may enhance some aspects of brain connectivity, which could explain these benefits.
Modafinil has some vocal fans, including the “biohacker” and Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey. And at least some of the existing research on modafinil hasn’t turned up serious long-term health risks.
But there are some potential side effects, including headaches, anxiety and insomnia. Part of the way modafinil works is by shifting the brain’s levels of norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters; it’s not clear what effects these shifts may have on a person’s health in the long run, and some research on young people who use modafinil has found changes in brain plasticity that are associated with poorer cognitive function.
“One of my favorites is 1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine,” says Dr. Mark Moyad, director of preventive and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan. He says this chemical boosts many aspects of cognition by improving alertness. It’s also associated with some memory benefits. “Of course,” Moyad says, “1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine goes by another name—caffeine.”
While caffeine was once considered risky, most experts today agree that caffeine (at least in coffee and green tea) is more beneficial than harmful when it’s consumed in moderation. Those who have called nootropics "fakes" in the past are now changing their stances. After continued testing and tracking, they may one day all agree that nootropics improves your brain processes, focus, and memory.
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