Truly Blissful Brains

[En Español]

It’s not uncommon for beverage advertisements to make far-fetched claims. Coca Cola “calms jumpy nerves,” Vitamin Water is “nutritious,” and Gatorade will turn you into Michael Jordan. Within the past few years, a new brain-branded league of products has entered the beverages aisle, creating conflict within a neuroscientist like me. While I’m excited about the possibility of research improving our lives, I’m terrified of more pseudo-neuroscience-based claims.

After seeing more and more of these drinks on the shelves, I was not going to stand silent, gaping at the row of neuro drinks. I wanted answers about the science, or lack thereof, behind such deliberately bottled products. Is there evidence that we can achieve focus, bliss, and neurogasm with cleverly designed beverages? And why do beverage companies keep putting brains on everything?

(re)designing focus: enhancing caffeine with nootropics

Nawgan and TruBrain stepped onto the market with a clear message: we’re better than caffeine alone. More specifically, Nawgan would like to be the “what you drink when you’d like to think” and truBrain will help you “access your brain’s full potential.” With this slogan, which alludes to a popular, invasive myth about using only a portion of our brains (a fallacy that we lapped up in the movie Lucy), truBrain is already beginning to push my neurosensitive buttons. And besides, how do they claim to do so? With the help of UCLA-trained neuroscientists and a list of ingredients termed nootropics.

Leading the team of neuroscientists is Dr. Andrew Hill, a relatively recent graduate of UCLA’s cognitive neuroscience PhD program and an outspoken individual on brain improvement. In Dr. Hill’s words, nootropics are “defined by their ability to support cognition without any appreciable side effects.” As I started digging into this further, I started to realize that defining a drug as “nootropic” is subjective and the logic behind drinks containing them is a vague, tautological loop: neuro drinks are brain-enhancing because they contain nootropics (brain-enhancing drugs)… and somehow (hint: neuro marketing) this explanation is satisfactory for consumers.

The vast, unregulated world of nootropics

While the idea of brain-enhancing drugs isn’t new, companies such as Nawgan, truBrain, and neuro drinks (i.e. NeuroBLISS) were the first to package them and put them on the market in a combined, drinkable form. A quick literature search shows that there are numerous known nootropic substances, many of which have been shown to reduce stress, help memory, improve performance, etc. Although the truBrain formula is proprietary, they provide a list of active nootropics, including oxiracetam, piracetam, citicoline, caffeine, and L-theanine. In a useful, interactive infographic, they lay out each of their ingredients, with examples of published research on their effects.Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 11.36.58 AM

Several of these ingredients appear in multiple neuro drinks, and also have huge fan bases in the health food world. with many people stacking them on coffee or taking pills directly. Oxiracetam and piracetam both fall under the category of “racetams,” with similar molecular structures but diverse mechanisms of action in the central nervous system. In a variety of  small studies, oxiracetam and piracetam have been shown to have various promising benefits, from improving cell metabolism in rats, to treating dementia in humans. Citicoline, featured in both Nawgan and truBrain, has been shown to improve attention and is thought to be protective against neurodegeneration due to stroke or even addiction.

One of the ingredients that shows up in both truBrain and neuroBLISS is L-theanine, an amino acid most commonly found in green tea. Dr. Andrew Scholey, a leading researcher on the cognitive effects of natural products (and a recipient of funding from the companies that make such products), has shown that L-theanine reduces self-reported stress, dampens cortical responses, and increases a certain type of brain activity, alpha waves, that is often correlated with “relaxed attention.” There is also some evidence that citicoline enhances alpha waves. But while alpha waves have been shown to be present during attentional tasks, the blanket statement that they’re always good is debated by neuroscientists. As far as reducing stress, L-theanine has been shown to inhibit blood pressure increases, likely because it reduces neuronal excitability (Yoto et al., 2012).

Proof of tru BLISS with clever nootropic combinations?

According to Dr. Hill, the ingredients themselves aren’t new, but the combination is. It’s a stew cooked up by Dr. Hill himself, thanks to a bit of self-experimentation. Companies such as truBrain and NeuroBLISS are capitalizing on the additive effects of combining these substances, which has indeed shown the potential to be beneficial (e.g., L-theanine and caffeine).

Similar to Dr. Scholey’s research with L-theanine alone, truBrain also reports finding an increase in alpha waves in a pilot study with 7 participants. According to an AMA with Dr. Hill about 11 months ago, truBrain recently completed a larger – albeit, still relatively small – study with 20 participants, and is asking users to “bear with them” while they analyze the data. Importantly, none of these claims are FDA approved nor peer reviewed and both of these researchers receive funding directly from their respective companies. In sum, take these results with a grain of nootropic salt.

Ultimately, it’s not clear whether these neuro drinks have stumbled upon some divine combination of nootropics – sure, each of these ingredients may be beneficial, but the data is not there to support their product being drastically better than the ingredients alone. Much research has been done on caffeine alone, and the ideal amount of arousal that you need in order to be in an optimal attentive state, a principle known as the Yerkes-Dodson law. While we need a little bit of stimulation to get our minds rolling, too much can make us anxious and distractible. Still, much less research along these lines has been done on mixtures of nootropics.

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 11.21.42 AMIn sum, these companies are making a profit on “novel combinations” that are really just a mix of known cognitive enhancers. As NeuroSkeptic has calculated, you can buy the main ingredients of truBrain separately for a monthly total of $34.08, whereas they will charge you $85. Or, you could drink a cup of green tea, followed by a cup of coffee (roughly $5). And yet, truBrain has a devout following, so they’re doing something right. It might be less about the nootropics, and more about the neuromarketing.

Put a brain on it: neuromarketing and the placebo effect

Portland puts birds on everything, and now drink marketers seem to put brains (or neuroscience words) on everything. As a neuroscientist, I’m not bothered by the idea of a brain-centric world, but I am bothered by false advertising. Almost everything you put in your body – or look at, touch, or… think about, for that matter – has an effect on your brain. Sticking a picture of a brain on the outside of the package doesn’t make your drink scientifically proven, and it doesn’t make your brain more affected by its contents.

Yet, because most of us are innately interested in reductionistic explanations based on “biology,” brain images are powerful. In 2007, researchers showed that adding brain images to ridiculous scientific claims made the claims more believable to participants – even more than adding bar graphs. As the authors write, “The present data provide support for the notion that there is, indeed, something special about the brain images with respect to influencing judgments of scientific credibility.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 11.20.46 AM

The power of including a brain image. (From McCabe & Castel, 2007)

Beyond images of brains, we’re also very tuned into biological explanations. In a 2008 study, researchers demonstrated that participants found information “more credible” when a neuroscientific explanation was given. Ultimately, neuro drinks may work not only because of their ingredients, but because they’re using brain words and images to feign credibility, tapping into our remarkable ability to change our own brains and behavior without a chemical impulse – also known as the placebo effect.

Finding focus in the neuronoise

As famous neuroanatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal once said, “Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.” As we’ve seen here, and as I’m sure many of us know from experience, there are plenty of substances and practices that can improve your cognition: a cup of coffee is a great way to focus, a short walk outside can clear your mind, and 30 minutes of meditation goes a long way as far as stress relief.

However, waving brains and “neuroscience data” in front of our faces, pretending that it is proof of a good, data-driven product is potentially damaging to the public perception of neuroscience research. As consumers, we need to be neuroscience-savvy and perpetually skeptical – just because something is branded with a brain does not make it more credible. And lastly, neuroscientists do more than research profitable products; many of us are trying to investigate the complicated and wonderful Gordian knot inside of our heads for long term societal gain, rather than make money on a few observations.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that these drinks can also help you focus, allow you to relax, or turn you into a badass like Abby Wambach (oh how I wish) – but I do doubt that it’s purely due to their chemical makeup. The placebo effect is very real, and with the right marketing and the right amount of stimulation, these drinks surely could make you feel neurobetter.