Some experts nonetheless question the safety of the drinks if imbibed in quantity or by the wrong folks. When I reach Emory bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe, editor in chief of the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience, he opens up a can of outrage. “It is unethical to sell drinks with potentially powerful neurological effects without long-term scientific studies,” he tells me. “I am especially worried about messing with the brain chemistry of people with depression, ADHD, or other conditions that may be made worse by neuroactive chemicals.”
Social scientist Jayne Lucke of the University of Queensland shares Wolpe’s concern. If you buy a bottle of aspirin, you can see how many milligrams are in each pill and how many pills you should take a day. But you can’t find out how much melatonin is in Dream Water or how much L-theanine is in NeuroSonic. In many cases there is also no indication of how many bottles you can safely drink in a day. “People may be less cautious about their use than they would be if they were taking a pill, so it is important to be sure that even a high level of consumption is safe before the products are sold,” Lucke says.
The experts are especially concerned about the effect of brain drinks on young people. Drugs considered safe for adult brains can have harmful effects on developing ones. Antidepressants, for example, turn out to increase the rate of suicidal thoughts in teenagers. “What are the long-term effects of taking these drinks, especially on kids?” Wolpe asks. “It’s a dangerous experiment.” NeuroSonic carries a note that it is not recommended for children under 12. Dream Water bears a similar note that it’s for people over 18. But teenagers—who already have an ample thirst for energy drinks—can legally walk into a store and buy as many brain drinks as they want.
“It is critical that scientists step up to the plate to conduct rigorous research to understand the potential health risks of these products,” says Amelia Arria, director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland.
As I chug through my collection of brain drinks, I wait for genius to hit me. I feel no surge of brilliance. My writing dribbles on. I decide to test myself for subtler changes. I ask my wife, Grace, a passionate gardener, to teach me some botany. She points to two bushes outside my office window. They are Skimmia, she tells me, and they’re dioecious. In other words, each plant is either male or female.
OK, OK, I say to myself, as a shot of Nawgan, “carefully crafted by a brain scientist to enhance concentration and focus,” courses through my brain.
A few hours later, Grace stops by my desk for a quiz. “So?” she asks.
“Sniffia?” I venture.
Experimenting on Myself
Over the next few days I crack open other brands. Some give me a coffeelike buzz, but I take no great leaps of genius. I take an online test for a phenomenon known as the Stroop Effect. I look at the names of colors printed in different colors: red spelled out in green letters, for example. If someone asks you to name the color of the word, you have to struggle not to say red. When I drink a can of Brain Toniq (“Fuel your cranium. Get thinking again”), I don’t do noticeably better.
To make sense of my mediocre performance, I contact Martha Farah, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the craze for cognitive enhancement. A growing number of college students are taking Adderall—typically prescribed for attention deficit disorder—in hopes of boosting academic performance. But Farah and other neuroscientists have found some of those students are fooling themselves. “There are a decent number of null results,” she says.
Farah isn’t surprised at my own null results. Just because a molecule appears to heighten attention in a small study on a couple dozen people doesn’t mean it will have any effect if it’s mixed into a drink and given to someone at random at an unknown dose. A full-blown clinical trial of a brain drink could give some indication of whether it works or not. Noonan promises that Neuro is going to start some trials soon, but that seems like quite the afterthought, given that the drink was developed in 2008.
Part of the problem—if you can call it that—may be that my brain was already in pretty good shape. I had just come off a pleasant vacation with my family, with lots of sleep and bike riding. “If you’re already performing well, they are unlikely to be helpful,” Jayne Lucke says. But that doesn’t necessarily mean brain drinks are good for people who are stressed or short on sleep or depressed. In those cases, Lucke argues, people would be better off addressing the underlying causes of their frazzled state of mind.
On the fourth day of my experiment in amateur psychopharmacology, I throw in the towel. I clear the empty bottles of brain drinks from my desk. I have another idea for getting a good night’s sleep and having a sharp brain at work. I’m getting to bed before midnight.