Nootropic substances—from the Greek words meaning “mind-bending” –are ingestible chemicals often promoted for their cognitive enhancing properties (Jasanoff 2018). According to companies selling nootropic products, benefits of using the products include prevention of cognitive decline, enhanced memory, increased learning, improved concentration, and rapid cognition. Nootropic drugs include stimulants like amphetamine and methylphenidate, marketed under the names Adderall and Ritalin, as well as sleep suppressants like Modafinil. Nootropics also include a range of dietary supplements.
The brain supplement industry is big business. These companies claim if you are interested in getting an advantage over the competition, it is essential that you are taking the right supplements. Supplement companies in other areas, including fitness and weight loss, have used similar persuasive messages with success. Almost everyone agrees that better thinking is important, especially in today’s information driven society. Will the right supplements make you a better thinker or give you a competitive edge?
Popular Brain Supplements
Fish oil, one of the most popular supplements, is promoted as a brain booster as well as providing other benefits. Fish oil contains omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines. These fatty acids are important in brain development and help with the formation of membranes surrounding brain cells. They also have antioxidant properties (Jarrett 2015).
It appears that omega-3 fatty acids are particularly beneficial for pregnant and nursing mothers. Adequate consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is important during pregnancy; omega-3 fatty acids are critical building blocks of the fetal brain and retina. Surveys indicate that pregnant women in the United States and other countries do not consume enough omega-3 fatty acids, and for them supplementation is recommended (Coletta et al. 2010). After conducting a review of ten trials, John Protzko and colleagues (2013) concluded that pregnant and nursing mothers who supplement with omega-3 fatty acids boost their children’s IQ in early childhood.
Is supplementation with fish oil beneficial for young children? In a sixteen-week study healthy children ranging from seven to nine years old were given a fish oil supplement or a placebo pill similar in taste and color (Richardson et al. 2012). The results indicated the supplements had no benefit on children’s reading ability, behavior, or working memory.
Is fish oil supplementation beneficial for brain power in older people? A systematic review published by the Cochrane Collaboration examined over 3,000 healthy participants over age sixty who had been taking fatty acid supplements or placebo for at least six months (Sydenham et al. 2012). Up to forty months later, measures of cognitive function showed no benefits for those taking fatty acid supplements. The researchers concluded omega-3 supplements do not benefit cognitive function in older adults who are cognitively healthy.
Ginkgo biloba (Gb) seeds and leaves have been used as an herbal remedy for thousands of years, and its leaf extract has been consumed as a botanical dietary supplement for decades (Mei et al. 2017). Gb supplements are purported to be brain boosters and especially useful, according to proponents, in an effort to prevent cognitive decline in older adults. A study was conducted by Jeffrey Kaye (2009) to determine the effectiveness of Gb versus placebo in reducing the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in elderly individuals with normal cognition and those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Just under 3,070 volunteers aged seventy years or older were included in the study. Participants received a twice-daily dose of 120-mg extract of Gb or placebo. The researchers concluded Gb at 120 mg twice a day was not effective in reducing either the overall incidence rate of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease incidence in elderly individuals with normal cognition or those with MCI.
A 2010 meta-analysis reported that a high level of Gb intake is not associated with reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers stated that recent findings regarding well-known over-the-counter memory enhancers show no benefits for those with Alzheimer’s. Supplements have not been shown to conclusively “slow down cognitive decline or postpone Alzheimer’s disease symptoms beyond placebo effect” (Fernandez et al. 2013).
If you spend even a small amount of time watching TV, you have probably seen Neuriva commercials. Neuriva is a relatively new supplement that makes big claims. According to its manufacturers, you can expect the following benefits when using the product: enhanced focus, better learning, improved memory function, improved accuracy, and better concentration. What is it that makes Neuriva such a powerful brain booster? The active ingredients in Neuriva are coffee fruit extract and phosphatidylserine.
Proponents of coffee fruit extract claim that use of the supplement will increase brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Increases in BDNF may be beneficial, as BDNF promotes the growth, maturation, and proliferation of brain cells (as well as cells in the spinal cord). There is one study where researchers found a 140 percent increase in BDNF in people supplementing with whole coffee fruit concentrate (Reyes-Izquierdo et al. 2013). This study doesn’t provide evidence for the benefits of coffee fruit extract; the study involved whole coffee fruit concentrate, which is not the same thing as coffee fruit extract. In addition, the claims made about coffee fruit concentrate rely on a single study with a small sample.
Phosphatidylserine is found throughout the human brain. It is a phospholipid and is important for healthy brain function. The research findings on phosphatidylserine are inconclusive. There is some research showing cognitive benefits, but the research most often involves dosages much higher than those found in Neuriva (Glade and Smith 2015). There is a lack of evidence indicating that 100 mgs of phosphatidylserine, which is the amount found in Neuriva, will significantly influence brain functioning.
There are many dietary supplements sold as nootropics. There are some excellent review papers and websites that provide an extensive investigation into the wide range of products on the market. If you are considering using nootropics, familiarize yourself with the relevant literature. In addition to considering whether or not supplements will boost brain function, consider the possibility of negative interactions when mixing them with other substances. Do an extensive search on possible interactions before using any supplement.
Before supplementing, I recommend focusing on strengthening the foundations of brain health: exercise, nutrition, cognitively challenging activities, positive social interactions, and minimization of excessive stress. You might find strengthening these foundations lead to an array of positive outcomes in addition to better brain functioning.
Coletta, J.M. et al. 2010. Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Pregnancy. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 3 (4), 163-171.
Fernandez, A et al. 2013. The SharpBrains Guide To Brain Fitness 2nd Edition.
Glade, J. and Smith, K. 2015. Phosphatidylserine and the human brain. Nutrition, 31(6), 781-786.
Jarrett, C. 2015. Great Myths Of The Brain. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.
Jasanoff, A. 2018. The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, And Environment Collaborate To Make Us Who We Are. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Kaye, J. 2009. Ginkgo biloba prevention trials: More than an ounce of prvention learned. Archives of Neurology, 66(5), 652-654.
Mei, N et al. 2017. Review of Ginkgo biloba- induced toxicity, from experimental studies to human case reports. Journal of Environmental Science and Health Part C Environmental Carcinogenesis & Ecotoxicology ,35(1), 1-28.
Protzko, J et al. 2013. How to make a young child smarter: Evidence for the database of raising intelligence. Perspectives on Psychologicla Science, 8(1), 25-40.
Richardson, A.J. et al. 2012. Docosahexaenoic acid for reading, cognition and behavior in children aged 7-9 years: A randomized, controlled trial. Plos One, 7(9), e43909.
Sydenham, E. 2012. Omega 3 fatty acid for the prevention of cognitive decline and dementia. Cochrance Database Systematic Review, 6. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD005379.pub3.
Tania Reyes, I et al. 2013. Modulatory Effect of Coffee Fruit Extract on Plasma Levels of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor in Healthy Subjects. British Journal of Nutrition, 110(3), 420-425.