[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]
Will brain-power in a bottle ever unlock your inner genius?
News of a brand–new “Limitless pill” is making its way around the Internet. Claiming to “safely improve memory, focus, and mental performance,” the Neuro XR brain–booster has been garnering accolades from intrigued journalists.
It might be unwise to join in the excitement, however. First off, journalists are notoriously poor at weighing evidence and numerical data. But there are additional reasons to be skeptical of claims that promise cognitive enhancement.
Neuro XR purportedly lists its ingredients and suggests some dosage schedules, but much-needed information is missing. Some ingredients, like folic acid, are well-known for their benefits; it supports cellular growth and DNA repair. Other ingredients sound more exotic, like DMAE Bitartrate and Gingko Biloba Extract, but these are backed by scientific evidence.
There is a catch, however.
Most of the pill’s ingredients are hidden within a 700mg “proprietary formula.” And there is simply not enough of any one ingredient in a capsule Neuro XR to induce the advertised effects. While the supplement may not literally be snake oil, it sure appears to be watered down.
Yet why do testimonials continue to praise Neuro XR? The placebo effect is one possibility that comes to mind. People love the idea of memory–enhancing drugs. We want to believe they will work, and so they do. Years ago Wall Street fell in love with modafinil (brand name Provigil), a drug used to treat the life–threatening sleep disorder narcolepsy. In normal people it produces a buzz and level of alertness comparable to cocaine. Compound Huperzine–a once boomed and faded in the investor market. Even common rosemary oil has its evangelists. According to 2008 survey by Nature magazine, 20 percent of its readers had taken some kind of memory–enhancement drug. And why not, if it promises success in a capsule, as it users say?
Claims that “the ingredients in NeuroXR have been clinically proven to increase focus and concentration for more than five to six hours with little to no side effects” are at best misleading. At worst they can be dangerous. As this latest miracle drug gets promoted across daytime television and the Internet, it is tempting for our tired, tech–boggled brains to jump at the chance for an easy boost. But take note: according to Oxford neuropsychologist Anna-Katharine Brem (also a Neuro XR review co-author) the touted clinical studies have only been conducted in a controlled environment, and usually with a single dose.
No one really knows what effect these drugs may have after years of regular use. Does it keep its edge after that first pill? Is it still effective after ten years of repeated use? Coffee drinkers know first–hand about the dose–dependent and cumulative effects of America’s favorite brain booster, caffeine.
Neurotropic pills are the latest in a long search for ways to boost brain power. Caffeine, the energizing chemical in coffee, is one of the oldest and most popular. Humans have indulged it for centuries if not millennia. The nicotine in cigarettes was once just as pervasive until it was revealed to be highly addictive and linked to cancer.
In recent decades physicians have hit upon ways to improve cognition in certain conditions. Amphetamine stimulants (Adderal) and methylphenidate (Ritalin) improve mental focus and dampen impulsive behavior typical of ADHD. Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors can enhance cognition in some individuals with Alzheimer’s dementia. These drugs do their job in those who truly need help; they are not meant for healthy brains.
Still, healthy brains continue to search for a wonder pill that will unlock our inner superhero. Can we even find such a blessing?
Fish oil, rich in omega–3 fatty acids and derived from oily fish like sardines, mackerel, herring, and salmon, has been proven to increase brain volume and reduce symptoms of ADHD. Baby boomers might remember taking a daily spoonful of cod liver oil, which years ago was widely used as a source of vitamins A and D. Today fish oil comes in pills and flavored syrups, as well as fish, of course. Unlike Neuro XR and its counterparts, its long–term health effects are fairly well known.
Then there are the “remedies” that cost nothing at all. Moderate exercise measurably improves memory and lifts brain fog. And though many hate to admit it, sleep is arguably the most important “life hack” that increases alertness and mental acuity. It is the body’s favorite biological mechanism to clean out cellular garbage and keep our brains tidy. Sleep flushes away toxic waste while simultaneously picking up beneficial molecules that keep our bodies functioning at their prime.
It’s no wonder that the triad of diet, exercise, and rest are the actual brain–boosters that work. Ironically, they are also the first practices that are shoved aside when other responsibilities pile up. So while the industry will no doubt continue its quest for a pill–shaped alternative, these simple practices, perfected over millennia, won’t be easy to replace.