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Brain Enhancement Folly

There are no miracles on the brain-enhancement product shelf.

Move over sellers of last year’s miracle brain enhancer, Prevagen: Neuriva is all the rage now thanks to a slick marketing campaign. What is Neuriva? According to its website, it's an extract of the plant Coffea arabica. You might know this extract by another name: coffee. Yep, it's essentially an expensive cup of java in pill form. The company claims that the extract from this exotic plant can make you smarter by increasing brain levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

Is this true? Studies in animals treated with high doses of the arabica extract do show increased levels of BDNF in their brains—and, in some studies, but not others, the rats performed better in mazes. Is the same true for humans? No one knows.

Coffee can increase blood levels of BDNF in humans; however, this does not tell us what's going on inside our brains. Why? Because blood levels of BDNF have no influence on brain levels. BDNF cannot cross the blood-brain barrier.

The new product's website correctly claims that BDNF has been widely studied and is known to support the survival of existing neurons and encourage the growth of new neurons. Unfortunately, no one knows whether similar beneficial changes occur in the human brain—or whether these changes can make you smarter.

Neuriva has another ingredient, phosphatidylserine, that its marketers claim can also make you smarter. Thirty years ago, neuroscientists were excited about phosphatidylserine's potential—but not anymore. Essentially, dietary supplements cannot increase phosphatidylserine levels in the brain. Those older studies suggested some slight cognitive improvements for elderly people, but these cognitive changes were never considered clinically relevant, and phosphatidylserine is no longer considered worthwhile.

I do not doubt that the purveyors of this harmless new elixir will make lots of money. The question is why people still fall for this pseudoscience? The answer is simple: People turn to dubious products because science has failed to invent a true brain enhancer. In addition, marketers learned long ago that their elixirs sell better if they originate from plants and are accompanied by vague claims. One other thing is still as true today as it was long ago: A few people will always claim that the snake oil worked and that they feel much smarter after taking it.

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 these drugs affect you. We all want to believe that the pills we take will help us feel and function better—and thanks to the poorly understood phenomenon of the placebo effect, we do sometimes, but only for a while, benefit even from the most bogus elixirs. Essentially, we want these drugs to do something, anything—so we fool ourselves into thinking that they do. After all, you just spent a lot of money on this supplement.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of charlatans eager to mislead potential customers with flimsy pseudoscientific evidence in order to make a profit. As Tinker Bell once said, “You just have to believe!” But Tinker Bell didn’t charge so much for her advice.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. Author of Your Brain on Food, 3rd Edition, 2019 (Oxford University Press).

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