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Effective Brain Enhancing Pills Do Not Exist

Be suspicious of any drug that claims it will make you think faster or better.

Key points

  • The fact that science has not yet invented a true brain enhancer has not stopped people from selling magical elixirs.
  • People fall for this nonsense because of the placebo effect. We badly want these drugs to work.
  • They typically contain caffeine, sugar, some amino acids, a few herbals with strange-sounding names, and a few vitamins.

An effective brain-enhancing pill does not exist. One day, maybe, but definitely not today. Pharmaceutical companies and scientists including me for the past 40 years have been trying to find a chemical or some blend of drugs, that can enhance normal brain function or slow down the aging process. Thus far, no one has been able to design a therapy that can make a person truly smarter or slow brain aging. If you look at the so-called memory boosters and cognitive enhancers on the market today, you will see that they contain caffeine, sugar, some amino acids, a few herbals with strange-sounding names, and a few vitamins. These pills do nothing except make us a little poorer.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of charlatans eager to mislead potential customers with flimsy pseudoscientific evidence to make a profit. Why are we so vulnerable to the placebo effect? When it comes to therapies that claim to enhance brain function, never underestimate the power of your own expectations. Your mind plays a major role in how drugs affect you. We all want to believe that the pills we take will help us feel and function better; fortunately, thanks to the poorly understood phenomenon of the placebo effect, we do sometimes, but only for a while, benefit even from the most bogus of elixirs. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular ingredients of these magical elixirs.

Most contain a blend of B-Vitamins. These are water-soluble vitamins that you will mostly expel in the urine a few hours after ingesting the pill. If you need convincing, just look at your urine a few hours after taking these vitamins; it will be a bright yellow. Most cognition-enhancing nootropics also contain phosphatidylserine or choline. These chemicals were once tested on thousands of Alzheimer's patients during the 1980s; they both failed completely to provide any long-term benefits. That is why no Alzheimer's patients are ever given these drugs. They are a waste of money; they do not work and they have unpleasant side effects.

L-Theanine is a very popular ingredient that can easily be found in a cup of tea. Most of the snake oils on the market today contain antioxidants in some form. For example, one popular ingredient is Maritime Pine Bark Extract. It contains antioxidants. Bacosides from Bacopa monnieri are antioxidants as well. Virtually every plant on the planet contains anti-oxidants. There is nothing special about the bacosides or pine bark extracts. There are very few reliable reports in the literature about bacosides. In one small study, the authors reported no positive effects of 300 mg of bacosides on a divided attention task and no benefits in the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale.

Lion’s Mane Mushroom has become popular lately. Some recent scientific studies have reported that this mushroom may increase the production of the Nerve Growth Factor in astrocytes; whether this has any clinical benefits remains unknown. Rhodiola extracts have become popular lately. Marketers claim that it reduces stress, combats fatigue, increases mental performance, and improves physical and mental fitness and resilience. Whenever anything makes such amazing claims, you should immediately become suspicious. It’s all a placebo effect.

That science has not yet invented a true brain enhancer has not stopped people from selling magical elixirs obtained from unusual sources, which have unusual names, with vague claims that it will reduce the effects of aging on the brain or just make you smarter. Why do so many people fall for this? The answer is easy to summarize in three words—the placebo effect. Essentially, we want these drugs to do something, anything; so, we fool ourselves into thinking that they do. After all, you’ve just spent a lot of money on this pill. The Internet and TV are bursting with claims that special pills and elixirs will enhance your focus, mental energy, and memory. Fortunately, most of them are so utterly useless that they will not harm you. At this point in the 21st century, nothing—let me repeat that—nothing exists that can truly make us smarter.


Wenk GL, Your Brain on Food, 3rd Ed. (Oxford University Press)