As I sit here watching the season finale of Netflix exclusive Limitless, I start to wonder of the actual possibilities of enhancing the already amazing abilities of the human mind. There is definitely a market for this sort of ‘miracle supplement’ but what actually works? What are the ingredients of current ‘cognitive enhancement’ drugs? Let’s have a look.
In both the movie and Netflix series, the consumption of the drug labelled NZT-48 allows for an individual to have 100% recall as well as incredibe cognitive flexibility and processing speed for approximately 12 hours (duration may change, please check with your doctor for details). These results in the ability to learn music, languages, combat or anything else you can think of incredibly quickly as well as multitasking (seen by typing on two computers at once or, drawing Darwin and completing complex maths equations simultaneously). Not only that, but the manifestation of anger and jealously from the viewer; namely me. What are some of the real life products that can be taken to have a similar effect? Surely being able to recreate a fraction of these possibilities would be worth it right?
While watching it, I was definitely curious at some of the products that are available currently. One of the more prominent ones that I have found is Alpha Brain by Onnit. Alpha Brain is a nootropic; a dietary supplement that aims to support cognitive function such as focus and mental speed. Celebrity support, like that from Joe Rogan (comedian and TV show host), critiqued Alpha Brain saying that he had a “better recall of words” and his “ability to form sentences seemed smoother.” Though skeptical, I am interested in the possibilities of this working so lets look at the ingredients and some of the research associated with each substance listed. Four main ingredients are listed on the website as well as a few “other ingredients”. This article is going to target the main active ingredients claimed by Onnit, with two having sources provided.
Bacopa is a plant that has been used traditionally in India for centuries. The source provided on the Onnit website is from 2008 which is currently outdated but more research has been performed since then. A 2013 review and comparison of research showed that particular extracts of the plant, namely bacoside A and B, have antioxidant and antidepressant effects, reduce concentrations of beta-amyloid plaques (Alzheimer’s disease) and act as a memory enhancer. Though the results of such research suggests that Bacopa might not acutely improve brain function, research shows that it positively effects visual retention of information, working memory, decreasing the delay of recall, learning and consolidation of target stimuli. These were results gathered regardless of age group and if mental cognition had been impaired due to age or illness. Though outdated, these findings are supported by studies conducted in 2001, 2010 and 2012.
Also known as Uncaria tomentosa or vilcacora, Cat’s claw is a woody vine found in South America. The vine was used for inflammation (2012), viral infections, cancer treatment (2016), contraception and to boost the immune system; dating back to the Inca civilzation (1438-1533). On the website, Onnit states that it has immune boosting and antioxidant properties which is support by science journal articles but I’m not entirely sure why they are present in this nootropic. Antioxidants protect the body from damage from free radicals; which are generated by the body through normal processes. It could be present to protect the brain from damage that has been shown to contribute to some decline in cognitive function but the research is still out on that.
One of the components of interest, Huperzine A (HupA), is extracted from a moss called Huperzia Serrata (Qian Ceng Ta) used for centuries in Chinese medicine and is known for being a powerful acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitor. Reviews show that HupA has a range of neauroprotective effects and has been effective at improving the cognitive ability of individuals impaired by brain damage, specific types of dementia, benign senescent forgetfulness and schizophrenia. One of the main uses for HupA currently is the minimization of symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. Though administration of the extract increases the amount of acetylcholine that is available to the brain, not a lot of research has investigated the effects of the extract on people with cognitive functions considered normal. It could be hypothesized that minimizing the breakdown of this neurotransmitter means more would be available for “brain activity.” Though acetylcholine plays an important role in attention and memory, it is also responsible for muscle activation, sensation of pain, endocrine system regulation and rapid eye movement sleep cycles.
The source sited by Onnit from 2011 concluded that ingested extracted of Avena sativa (oat herb) ‘might be effective in healthy subjects, resulting in a positive impact on cognitive performance.’ A 2017 study stated that improved cognitive performance of people had previously been shown in humans at a dose of 1600 mg (significantly less then the amount in a serving of Alpha Brain). The study tested this with adults between the ages of 40 to 65 years and found that 800 mg of green oat extract ‘increased speed of performance’ in tests as well as ‘improved performance of a delayed word recall’, ‘ decreased thinking time’ and ‘working memory span was also increased’ but only after a second, later administration of the extract. A 2012 study however found that ‘the cognitive benefit of acute (single dose) WGOE (wild green oat extract) supplementation does not persist with chronic (multi-day dose) treatment in older adults (≈67 years old) with normal cognition.’ These tests showed that doses in older adults of single dose are beneficial but it doesn’t say much for younger uses of the supplement.
Though this is but one product aimed at increasing the mental capacities of the individual, it comes with mixed reviews. For some people, there has been little to no affects on a persons recall ability while others swear by it. This potentially has a lot to do with people having their own unique chemistry inside of them and the results of one are unlikely to be the same as another. As I sit here reading through the handful of articles that have looked through the effects of such nootropic ingredients, there appears to be reports that supports the claims made by company’s like Onnit. I delve into this topic with a healthy level of skepticism but I am still on the verge of purchasing a 30 pack of Alpha Brain. I’m very curious as to the effects that it might have on my chemistry. Do you use nootropics of any kind? I’m interested to know so leave your thoughts in the comments below.