Wise Up, Sweetheart

By Judith Stone|Sunday, November 01, 1992
RELATED TAGS: DRUGS & ADDICTION
Oh, my God, I tell my companions as we’re waiting for the elixir to kick in. I kind of remember how to do quadratic equations! Soon I’ll probably solve the mysteries of galaxy formation. Then maybe I’ll understand the secret of life. Maybe I’ll even understand the lyrics to ‘Louie, Louie!’

You can get a little overoptimistic when you toss back your first New Blue, a blueberry syrup, vitamin, and amino acid cocktail that’s one of an emerging strain of potent potables (Don Pardo’s favorite category) called think drinks, or smart drinks: nonalcoholic beverages enhanced with additives alleged by their purveyors to improve memory, concentration, learning, and general well-being and to reverse some of the effects of aging.

I’m tripping down the primrose path of self-improvement at the smart bar of the DNA Lounge, a club in San Francisco’s SOMA (South of Market) district, the happening part of town. (To find the happening part of any town, advises my upstairs neighbor, a graphic designer so firmly on the cutting edge that his butt is coleslaw, just follow the people wearing all black. Which works pretty much everywhere except Amish country.)

Will they IQ us at the door? one of my companions had anxiously asked as we approached the club. In case things get out of hand, he’s volunteered to be the designated chucklehead, agreeing to remain soberly unthinking while the rest of us cerebrate wildly.

There have been other great moments in bar history: the premier brewing of beer by the Sumerians, the successful miniaturization of the paper umbrella by the Taiwanese, the invention of the clock that says the bar opens at five and has all fives on its face, the cultivation of the fern. And now the smart drink, a big thing among the cyberknowledgeable, the New Edgers, the Just Say Techno crowd who like their pleasures electronic and healthy.

Earlier in the week Jim English, the founder of the DNA Lounge, had explained the attraction of smart drinks: I’ve had other clubs--Big Heart City, Science Club, Nonclub, Industry. I spent 12 years catering to people involved in one form of debauchery or another, and I was tired of it. Smart drinks offer a more intelligent choice. You’re alert and stimulated the next day rather than hung over. English is now the president of Smart Products, which distributes the makings of what he refers to as nutrient drinks all over the nation. Twelve clubs here offer our products. Some people will be skeptical because it’s coming out of San Francisco, to many the nation’s wacko capital, but we’re selling to clubs in Cleveland, Dallas, Florida, Canada, Kansas City, and New York.

English peddles 38 different smart items, including Rise and Shine, a drink containing fructose, minerals, and 500 milligrams of phenylalanine (a precursor of the neurotransmitter serotonin), and Blast, which is the same plus caffeine. It gives you the pleasant effects of coffee but doesn’t deplete other nutrients or interrupt circadian rhythms, English explained. Fast Blast replaces fructose with glucose and sucrose. It gives a quick sense of being alert and focused--but there’s a sugar crash.

My interest is not in the money. I’m part of a generation that for 25 years has been soaked in drugs, alcohol, and escapism. These drinks help you embrace reality.

Several people are giving reality a big hug in the DNA Lounge’s smart bar, which is tucked into a corner of the club’s mezzanine--but many more are arm wrestling with it in one of two dumb bars overlooking the dance floor and the stage where a group called d’Cuckoo is playing.

Ordinarily, I don’t like to drink anything smarter than Nestlé’s Quik (which I’d always regarded as a very clever drink because you could mix it with milk or, if you were a very impatient child, with spit, gulping spoonfuls of the enticing pale brown cocoa dust until it went up your nose and you sneezed hot fudge for a couple of days). But for plot purposes I agreed to take the suggestion of the DNA Lounge’s smart bartender, Mr. Curb (a sobriquet he earned because that’s where he ended up, unconscious, on his twenty-first birthday, when he was heavily into dumb drinks). Mr. Curb is decorated with several earrings and a bead necklace with a troll hanging from it. The DNA Lounge’s smart bar, red-walled and black-ceilinged, is decorated with a plastic model of the eponymous double helix, a pinball machine, a bowling trophy, an inflatable globe, a plastic brontosaur, a lamp shaped like a sand castle, a string of party lights in the shape of green plastic Earths, two deer heads, and the joker from an oversize deck of cards, with the caption HE WHO LAUGHS AT THE MISFORTUNE OF OTHERS UNDERSTANDS THE MEANING OF LIFE.

The menu on the wall urges keep your edge. have a cosmic think drink. Here’s a sampling from the bill of fare. Memory Fuel: For mind and body. Kick start your consciousness with choline, necessary for the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Contains choline, synergistic cofactors, and vitamins. $3.00. Brain Boost: Provides long- lasting energy for mind and body. Contains ingredients used by your body for actuating and utilizing noradrenaline, acetylcholine. Contains choline, caffeine, L-phenylalanine. Not for use by pregnant or lactating women or person with PKU.

If I were going to be dancing all night, Mr. Curb says, he’d recommend a Power Maker plus a Blast, two caffeine- and sugar-intensive drinks, to improve my focus and mental clarity and keep me up till the turn of the millennium. But since I must rise early to witness a young friend’s Little League game, he thinks a New Blue would be nice. It’ll give you a big energy boost for dancing, but the taurine, an amino acid given to coke addicts to cut the urge, will mellow you out and you’ll be able to sleep, says Mr. Curb, who achieves and maintains his edge with Jägermeister. Whispers one of my companions, If it were a flaming drink, they could call it Taurine Inferno.

Except for a slightly medicinal sludge at the bottom, New Blue is very sweet. What do you think I’ll be as smart as? I ask, licking away a blueberry mustache. A whip, maybe? Whips are notoriously canny; a braided leather lash was valedictorian in my high school. Or will I be as smart as the dickens? They were a bright family, especially young Charles.

Obviously, to experiment adequately with smart drinks, I’d need to do a double-blind, triple-cream study. My aim, however, was merely to gather anecdotal evidence.

Smart-drink enthusiasts report new vigor and acuity. Says Bryan Hughes, president of the Renaissance Foundation, a consortium of virtual- reality experts and artists, We’re walking waste dumps, tainted by everything from air pollutants to Twinkies to the free radicals our bodies produce. So-called smart drinks help detoxify the brain and stimulate it into producing neurotransmitters. The more neurotransmitters, the more signals get across--and that lets more information in.

I’ve noticed tremendous differences in the last year and a half. It kicked in after a couple of weeks; I didn’t notice it until I started waking up early and bouncy, with tons of energy. You enhance yourself tenfold. I take phenylalanine and tyrosine, a precursor of dopamine, mixed in a fruit smoothie. I get a nice zip and it bolsters my neurotransmitters and enzyme levels.

Smart drinks are different from smart drugs, a trendy category of licit and illicit pharmaceuticals ranging from the brain-killing ecstasy to the European imports Hydergine and Piracetam, both alleged memory enhancers. People also seem eager to get their hands and minds on vasopressin, an antidiuretic hormone normally used to treat diabetes, and Dilantin, an anticonvulsant used to control epilepsy. Although doctors are allowed to prescribe drugs for uses other than those originally intended, the FDA is trying to block their use for cognitive enhancement.

The government doesn’t consider stupidity a disease, writes John Morgenthaler, author of the New Edge bible, Smart Drugs & Nutrients. Therefore it has been totally uninterested in smart drugs for people like you and me. (Well, of course the government doesn’t consider stupidity a disease! Wouldn’t be prudent in an election year.)

Scientists are skeptical about the trend. A lot of proponents of so-called smart drinks and drugs refer to a study published in 1978 that reported choline was effective in animals and humans, says Gary Wenk, associate professor in the division of neural systems, memory, and aging at the University of Arizona in Tucson. But no one’s been able to replicate it. In that study, choline helped learning in young people. The problem is this: When we take an animal with brain lesions that model age-related problems and try to enhance its abilities with some drug, we’ve discovered that it works sometimes--modestly. But when we try it on normal healthy people, elderly or young, it doesn’t work. We don’t know if our animal models are wrong or if human beings are more complicated than we thought. There is no drug that makes a normal, healthy person smarter. We can assist or enhance functioning in a compromised animal--but we can’t make a normal animal or person any better.

One of the most effective smart drugs is caffeine. It will help you function a little better--if you’re fatigued. But if you’re fine, it only makes you anxious. The best thing we’ve discovered to prolong life is not to eat as much. Animals that take in fewer calories--it doesn’t matter what type--live 50 percent longer. We food-deprive them every other day; humans would skip a meal.

At Johns Hopkins, Wenk and colleagues investigated whether food- restricted diets enhance the aging process and make you smarter when older. Preliminary work with adults suggests it doesn’t work. You’ll be alive longer, but not smarter. And a lot hungrier.

Making a better brain may be beyond our abilities. Drug researchers are thinking about starting earlier--working with young animals--but we don’t know yet if that will be a good thing.

Every drug company is busily trying to find a cognitive enhancer. Whoever gets there first wins big. Of course, rich people already get cognitive enhancers. They can afford better food, schools, vitamins.

My friends and I are huddled in a corner of the smart bar eyeing each other for signs of cognitive enhancement. Okay! one says. What’s the world’s only nonflying mammalian obligate nectarivore? Quick as Nestlé’s and smooth as a smelt, I shoot back, The Australian honey possum. But it means nothing, since he and I read about it in the paper that morning. We ask another friend, What’s the capital of Sri Lanka? I don’t know, she says, but I feel more smartly dressed. And my eyes are smarting.

I mingle, asking people in the bar what they think about smart drinks. One woman says she feels fabulous--she’s not nodding off at work anymore and she’s more productive. A guy in a black tunic and skirt says, I like to dance and work the next day. And I usually like the people at a smart bar. I don’t go to clubs much anymore, though, because I have a little boy now.

A man strutting to the music from downstairs strikes up a conversation, proving that opening gambits in smart bars are no different from bars anywhere. So where are you from? New York, huh? Are rents really coming down back there? I hear you can actually bargain with a landlord. I experience the first unpleasant side effect of smart drinks: I am discussing real estate with a man playing air guitar.

So what do you do in New York? he asks.

Well, I’m actually the person who thought up the expression surf and turf, I say, and I’m living off the royalties. Pleasant side effect number one: New Blue has given me license to reinvent my life in a way I’d never risked before. The air guitarist waves to the corner in an Oh, I’m pretending I spot a friend in the distance; I’ll escape now gesture. I have another shot of taurine.

Your body doesn’t do anything special with taurine, Gary Wenk told me later. It’s just an amino acid that’s metabolized and used for fuel. Insects use it as a neurotransmitter and so do a few mollusks. (Aha! So that’s why men were drawn to me as moths to a flame--and why they all looked like the Incredible Mr. Limpet!)

A cheeseburger would do just as much good. If you take a large dose of one amino acid, your body vacuums it into the GI tract and discards it or uses it for trivial purposes like making you fat. Smart drinks are stimulants because they contain sugar--but that’s transient. That’s probably why people come back--the caffeine and the sugar.

Phenylalanine is an amino acid the brain uses to make a neurotransmitter, but the GI tract will take what it needs first. It’s an expensive contribution to your bowel movement. Arginine is another amino acid said to be in smart drinks. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich would get more in, and in better balance.

Choline you can get from Twinkies and cupcakes, in the form of lecithin. The major thing about it is that it makes your breath very bad, creating a gas that smells like old fish. We couldn’t do a double-blind study with Alzheimer’s patients because the nurses could tell who was getting choline and who wasn’t--the choline patients stank.

Smart drinks, like smart asses and smart bombs, make me uneasy. (The brilliant pebbles portion of the Strategic Defense Initiative I find positively terrifying.) But nothing bad happened. Let the record show that I stayed up dancing far past my bedtime, fell asleep immediately, rose at six feeling great, and never crashed.

Any enlightenment I’d achieved, I’m afraid, was as ephemeral as most chemically induced revelations, which all pretty much boil down to what I call the Paisley Theory of the Origin of the Universe. (What if we’re all like these tiny paisleys on God’s shorts, and--what is that, pizza? Can I have some?)

Here’s who I think should do smart drinks, and I believe experimentation will bear this out: people who would actually eat that little bag of silica gel tucked inside new shoes if it didn’t say do not eat on it. What exactly is the scenario anticipated by the manufacturer who provides the warning? Consumer: Oooh! A little bag of chemicals that’s been inside a shoe! Yum! I’m going to toast it and dip it in honey! I don’t get it, and I never will no matter how much taurine I guzzle.
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