Hacking the brain to work better and faster has been a hot topic, but research shows that nootropics products may fall short.
Supplements are not a completely foreign topic for most pharmacists. After all, most of our education and training has addressed some form of nutrition and vitamin supplementation. Although the focus in the past has been on supplements that have no active ingredients based on laboratory assessment, a new area has been in the news recently.
This new type of supplement coming to market is called nootropics, which mainly aims to improve the cognitive abilities of those who take them, using a mixture of natural ingredients and synthetic chemicals that some research has indicated may be beneficial in some form. These products are supposed to "biohack" the brain to improve focus and mental clarity, boost one's mood, and serve as "mind fuel." They are aimed at those seeking to be productive beyond what they get from a cup of coffee. Nootropics has taken off in many technology start-up circles as a tool to combat fatigue and work better than competitors.
Though this sounds intriguing, these products are not regulated by the FDA because they market themselves as nutritional supplements, thus avoiding oversight. There is no real clinical evidence from a prospective trial demonstrating that the products work. Most of the research listed on websites that sell nootropics list decades-old studies or ones where the products were tested only in animals.
Recently, CNBC.com reported that one of the products, when compared with caffeine in a prospective randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial, had no real effect and that caffeine actually performed better when measuring verbal memory recall scores.1,2 In a blog post responding to CNBC.com's coverage, the company claimed that the study results were not scientific enough and therefore not reflective of the product's true potential.3
So, will pharmacy shelves start stocking these products? Possibly, especially if someone can demonstrate clinical data to back up the companies' claims.
What is most interesting is the possible drug interactions or disease concerns that these products carry. Most of the systems that pharmacists use to check for interaction do not carry the ingredients in these products in their databases, so we are in the dark right now. Pharmacists should keep nootropics on their radar.
1. Farr C. This start-up raised millions to sell 'brain hacking' pills, but its own study found coffee works better. CNBC.com. cnbc.com/2017/11/30/hvmn-nootrobox-study-smart-pill-less-effective-than-caffeine.html. Published November 30, 2017. Accessed December 11, 2017.
2. ClinicalTrials.gov. The effects of SPRINT, a combination of natural ingredients, on cognition in healthy young volunteers. clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02857829?term=SPRINT+nootropic&rank=1. Accessed December 11, 2017.
3. Woo G, Brandt M. "In response to CNBC’s 'This start-up raised millions to sell 'brain hacking' pills ... '" HVMN blog post. hvmn.com/blog/in-response-to-cnbc. Accessed December 11, 2017.