Giving Nootropics a New Try
July 29, 2016
It would be nice to take a single pill and turn into a superhuman with a genius IQ and limitless memory. It would be so nice, in fact, that we’ve been fantasizing about it as a species for about as long as we’ve been writing stories about ourselves. In fact, when I told people I was experimenting with nootropics, which claim to turn your brain into a superhuman machine of perfect cognitive power, they inevitably referred to some piece of pop culture: “Oh, like Flowers for Algernon!” or “Hey, I saw that Bradley Cooper movie.”
Nootropics, by definition, certainly exist. Technically defined, nootropics are any drugs that have specific enhanced effects on cognitive function. Those could include caffeine, antidepressants, and a host of other drugs tested and accepted by the medical community. But when we talk about nootropics anecdotally, we often mean something else: drugs that exist on the fringe, not yet completely acknowledged by science, or outright sidelined by it. Still, I have known many skeptically minded people who have relied on them (including one person who ran a national Skeptics’ organization), and I have been offering myself up as a permanent guinea pig for fringe science and alternative medicine for the past five years, along with my podcast cohost, Ross Blocher. So for one month, we gave nootropics a go.
First, we tried L-Theanine, a synthesized green tea extract that is readily available online for a moderate price of around $30 for a month’s supply. The white powder is suspiciously cocaine-like in appearance, making my exchange with Ross, on a street corner in Hollywood, all the more awkward.
Just because a supplement is available over the counter doesn’t make it safe, so before taking any supplement, even for an experiment, it is important to check its safety information. L-Theanine, which has been widely consumed in green tea for centuries, has been thoroughly studied and found to have no observable adverse affects, even at the ludicrously high dose of 4,000 mg/kg of body weight.
According to L-Theanine pushers, the stuff is great for focusing attention, improving working memory, and even increasing intelligence. There’s some support for L-Theanine’s power, at least in concert with caffeine. However, a 2014 meta-analysis attributed most of the reported improvements to the caffeine usually taken alongside the nootropic.
Even so, some people swear that the powder increases their mental powers to superhuman levels. I, however, am not among them.
On the first day on L-Theanine, Ross and I both noticed nothing except increased heart rates and anxiety. Our scores on online IQ tests (which are notoriously unreliable, but presumably they are how some of these L-Theanine fans are testing their own IQs) were about the same as before we took the stuff, and my score on a working memory test actually dropped, perhaps because I was distracted by anxious thoughts. “Did I leave the oven on? DID I?!”
Over time, this effect decreased, and Ross and I experimented with adding and removing caffeine from the mix. We kept detailed logs of how we felt each day and compared our scores on those highly unscientific IQ tests, somewhat-scientific working memory tests, and our own notes about how we felt regarding our own mental focus. For the most part, neither of us felt any noticeable difference, and where the data was concerned, L-Theanine made no difference in any of my scores, and the small bump in Ross’s scores was within what might be expected from suggestion or chance.
A couple of weeks into our experiment, we decided to try a popular blend of several nootropics, called AlphaBrain. AlphaBrain is marketed as “clinically studied to help healthy individuals support memory, focus, and processing speed.” According to their promotional materials, the blend was actually inspired in part by comedian Joe Rogan, who has long enjoyed popularity with fringe thinkers. Rogan is a 9/11 Truther, doesn’t believe humans have landed on the moon, and believes in various other questionable theories, several of which have been outlined by Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning.
But just because nootropics sound a little too good to be true, or because they don’t have the best spokespeople, doesn’t alone make them pseudoscience. In fact, a double-blind study conducted at the Boston Center for Memory showed that people who took Alpha Brain for more than six weeks did show improvement on “long delay verbal recall” (remembering words after a long delay), while those given the placebo showed no improvement. There was also a slight improvement in “logical memory” scores, but those improvements disappeared after two weeks of taking the supplement as the body adjusted, suggesting that long-term use would not return an improvement in “logical memory” scores. It is also worth noting that the study was performed on only seventeen subjects.
So, Alpha Brain’s strongest claim is that it may improve verbal recall if you take it every day for more than six weeks. But that seems to counter some of its marketing, especially its “instant” formula, which, while absorbed quickly, wouldn’t necessarily give you much immediate benefit.
After a few weeks and even more experimenting with over-the-counter Neuro Drinks, which have many of the same ingredients and claims as our previous two nootropics, Ross and I were starting to lose hope that we were going to dramatically increase our IQs or improve our memories. We each found that most of the heavy lifting seemed to come from the caffeine recommended alongside the L-Theanine (when I took it without caffeine, my results were at or below my starting point), and neither of us wanted to get in the habit of maxing out on caffeine.
Still, there may be some long-term effect if a person takes certain nootropics for long periods of time (over six weeks), and other short-term effects (mostly in logical reasoning) that will come and go the first time you take the stuff on a clean system. Whether that benefit is worth it to you is another question. For me, I’ll stick with an occasional coffee. Not too hot, mind you.