The Hype Behind Supplements for Your Brain

By Mariam Melkumyan

A few months ago, I was shopping at CVS and came across a stand that caught my attention. It was a stand full of brain support supplements with labels including “Brain Armor”, “Brain Fog Capsule”, “Brain Performance”, “All-Day Focus”. Later on, my brother brought up the brain supplement by Qualia, saying that he has seen it in the news and a number of celebrities are using it. Being part of the Neuroscience PhD Program, this intrigued me. I wanted to learn more, especially since I was very skeptical that these brain supplements work.

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The brain and supplements. Photo Credit: Global Hospital & Healthcare Management 

I investigated 6 different brain supplement brands at various price points (Qualia, Neuriva, BioScience, Havasu, Zhou, Onnit)  and studied their common ingredients. I then considered whether the claims the companies make are indeed scientifically proven. There were a few interesting things I noted:

  1. Some of these were FDA approved and others weren’t, even though they had very similar ingredients and price point.
  2. Despite my literature search, I was unable to find a single peer reviewed article that tested the efficacy of these supplements. Sure, the ingredients they had, such as phosphatidylserine or ginkgo biloba (see below), had been looked at individually (DeKosky et al., 2008; Glade and Smith, 2015), but the actual efficacy of the supplement did not seem to be tested in a peer-reviewed, double-blinded, controlled study.
  3. Of the 6 brands, there were many similarities between the ingredients. The most common ingredients were:
    1. Phosphatidylserine – a fatty acid, good for healthy nerve cell membranes and myelin, supporting cognitive functions, including short term memory, long term memory, learning and recall, focus and concentration and problem solving (Glade and Smith, 2015).
    2. DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol) – a precursor of choline allowing the optimized production of acetylcholine (used in learning and memory). I only found one article on this, stating that it might be a good antioxidant clearing free radicals, but the results are inconclusive and a lot more research is needed to have a reliable argument (Malanga et al., 2012).
    3. Vitamin B12 – an essential vitamin, deficiency has been associated with neurocognitive disorders, such as dementia, and treatment with vitamin B12 for individuals who are B12-deficient seems to slow the rate of brain atrophy. However, it does not seem to significantly improve cognitive function, especially in individuals who do not have the deficiency (Health Quality Ontario, 2013).
    4. Gingko biloba – a product of the maidenhair tree, has potentially beneficial effects on memory and cognition and is widely used in the West (Birks and Evans, 2009). However, a randomized controlled clinical study showed no improvement in reducing incidence of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease (DeKosky et al., 2008).
    5. Bacopa Monnieri extract – a tropical plant, has been tested in rodent models and seems to reduce the release of inflammatory cytokines, increases long term potentiation, and improves learning and memory (Nemetchek et al., 2017; Promsuban et al., 2017).

To summarize, some of the ingredients in the supplements are useful for brain functioning. However, there have not been many, if any, peer-reviewed, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies assessing the efficacy of these supplements on improving cognitive functioning. Therefore, I would encourage people to channel their inner scientist and do extensive research on these supplements before purchasing them. An easy way to start is to follow these practical tips from AARP and talking to your physician.

 

References

Birks J, Evans JG (2009) Ginkgo biloba for cognitive impairment and dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews Available at: http://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD003120.pub3/abstract [Accessed June 23, 2020].

DeKosky ST, Williamson JD, Fitzpatrick AL, Kronmal RA, Ives DG, Saxton JA, Lopez OL, Burke G, Carlson MC, Fried LP, Kuller LH, Robbins JA, Tracy RP, Woolard NF, Dunn L, Snitz BE, Nahin RL, Furberg CD, Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) Study Investigators (2008) Ginkgo biloba for prevention of dementia: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 300:2253–2262.

Glade MJ, Smith K (2015) Phosphatidylserine and the human brain. Nutrition 31:781–786.

Health Quality Ontario (2013) Vitamin B12 and cognitive function: an evidence-based analysis. Ont Health Technol Assess Ser 13:1–45.

Malanga G, Aguiar MB, Puntarulo HDM and S (2012) New Insights on Dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) Features as a Free Radical Scavenger. Drug Metabolism Letters 6:54–59 Available at: http://www.eurekaselect.com/97788/article [Accessed June 23, 2020].

Nemetchek MD, Stierle AA, Stierle DB, Lurie DI (2017) The Ayurvedic plant Bacopa monnieri inhibits inflammatory pathways in the brain. J Ethnopharmacol 197:92–100.

Promsuban C, Limsuvan S, Akarasereenont P, Tilokskulchai K, Tapechum S, Pakaprot N (2017) Bacopa monnieri extract enhances learning-dependent hippocampal long-term synaptic potentiation. Neuroreport 28:1031–1035.

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