Brain stimulators: myths and reality

I would like to eat such a pill in order to pass the annual report without any problems. Or drink tea with a special herb and prepare for the exam in a couple of hours. Why, it would be possible to do without time constraints, just take magic pills and think faster. They say biohackers in Silicon Valley somehow manage to do this, and mice have already been taught to be smarter by introducing a gene that increases brain activity. So is it possible to disperse this thinking machine with simple actions, or how?

Let’s start with a simple one: coffee is not invigorating!

Caffeine from the alkaloid class is the most popular psychostimulant. Although it does not belong to the official stimulators of brain activity, it is impossible not to say about it. And all because he deceives us in the same way as most other compounds with which we are “cheerful and cheerful”. But in fact, caffeine is not invigorating.

Yes, morning drowsiness and night gatherings over a cup of coffee are more active. But the stimulating effect of caffeine has not been scientifically proven. In a reasonable amount of coffee, it makes us feel some positive effects – a surge of energy, more activity, sociability. If you exceed the recommended dose, negative phenomena will already appear.

The average amount of caffeine that an adult can get without harm to their health from all drinks and products is 400 mg / day (for pregnant women – no more than 300 mg / day). Children and adolescents are allowed no more than 2.5 mg / kg of body weight per day.

So how does caffeine energize if it doesn’t?

Most of the effects of caffeine are based on its property of being an adenosine receptor blocker. It has a chemical structure similar to adenosine, which allows it to bind to its receptors and take the place of adenosine. The full effects of adenosine have not been studied, but it is absolutely clear that it causes drowsiness. When the brain has to work for a long time, adenosine accumulates and binds to its receptors. After that, the cells receive a signal “it’s time to rest”.

If caffeine takes its place, the neurons do not receive the signal and continue to work actively. We feel a surge of strength, although they have nowhere to take it, the body “climbs into reserves” and spends more than it should. After such a “work on credit” fatigue covers with renewed vigor.

Adenosine receptors exist not only in brain tissues, but also in the heart and kidneys. So there the effects of caffeine are also manifested – tachycardia and polyuria.

If there is too much caffeine in life, the body begins to adapt. In response to the amount of free adenosine (which lacks receptors – they are blocked by caffeine), new receptors begin to be synthesized. There comes drowsiness, fatigue, despite the coffee.

If you increase your caffeine intake in response, at first the feeling of cheerfulness will return, and then the body will begin to adapt again. And so on in a circle. And with a lack of caffeine in such a situation, a very unpleasant withdrawal syndrome begins.

According to the International Classification of Diseases of the XI revision, caffeine addiction is attributed to mental disorders.

In general, it is clear: a couple of cups of coffee can help to be more active and finish work faster, more will only hurt. We delete caffeine from the brain assistants.

Gingko biloba

This ancient plant, whose relatives existed 270 million years ago, is described as a real treasure for those who want to improve cerebral circulation, memory, slow down the aging of nerve cells. Gingko extract according to reports is in the sales leaders among dietary supplements.

Its leaves are a hit of ancient treatises of Chinese medicine (although there is also a treatment with lead and mercury in the “hits”). They contain a lot of components with complex names and no less complex research history. For example, myricetin from gingko is considered both an anticarcinogenic compound for skin cells and an active mutagen (carcinogen), and these contradictory research results are in the same Cochrane review!

There are two problems with gingko’s research: 70% of its compounds are poorly studied, and those that were studied well were tested mainly on cellular media, and not on the body as a whole. The second unpleasant aspect is that some components are contained in extracts in an unspecified amount. It is not yet possible to determine exactly how many different compounds are in the extract from the leaves.

Do they work?

A huge amount of research has been devoted to the action of gingko extract. However, not all of them are reliable, and many were carried out on a small number of volunteers or in combination with various drugs. The most optimistic conclusions: no more harmful than a placebo. But the general summary of Cochrane reviews is as follows: gingko biloba does not help either the brain, skin, or heart. And because of the composition that cannot be quantified, it can do harm.

If someone still believes that dietary supplements with gingko extract subjectively helps, it should be taken into account that he has many contraindications for combination with medicines.

Ginko biloba should not be taken together with anticonvulsants, benzodiazepines, haloperidol, cyclosporines, digoxin, drugs for increased blood clotting, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, for example, ibuprofen.

Despite its popularity, there is no solid evidence that ginkgo can help healthy people focus or remember something more clearly (sick people too). In addition, because ginkgo dilutes blood, it can prolong bleeding or even cause it.

Soy for the brain: phosphatidylserine from lecithin

Another “pill for the mind”, phosphatidylserine, a natural substance from soy, the “building material” of cell membranes. Although it is not seen directly in the energy suppliers for brain cells, it is believed that it can increase the effectiveness of neurotransmitters that transmit brain signals.

Prior to the spread of mad cow disease, phosphatidylserine was obtained from the cerebral cortex of cattle. Then the production was banned for obvious reasons, and in studies on athletes proved that the substance from soy has the same effects.

So, what does phosphatidylserine do to the body?

First of all, it has been proven to help reduce stress levels by affecting cortisol production (and a little testosterone). However, this stress should be caused by physical exertion. Then the connection works. If we are talking about cognitive functions, then everything is more complicated.

There are several dozen scientific papers that demonstrate the effect of reducing the symptoms of dementia or cognitive impairment. The FDA, the US Food and Drug Administration, approved the “Statement on the Health Benefits of Phosphatidylserine”, which allowed manufacturers to indicate dementia and cognitive impairment in the elderly population in the indications for this dietary supplement.

However, there is no reliable data on the benefits of this supplement for healthy people. However, scientists are still speaking cautiously about the impact on the unhealthy. The effect of soy lecithin and its components on brain activity is not considered proven, although more than 20 years have passed since the first study.

But we know that phosphatidylserine is found in many foods – meat, fish, white beans. In long-term studies, scientists used a dosage of 100 mg per day, and the average adult receives about 130 mg of phosphatidylserine with food. Conclusion: under stress and stress, you can somewhat shift the emphasis in the usual menu, including more products-suppliers of phosphatidylserine.

Nootropics: nutrition for the brain?

Nootropics and drugs similar to them in composition are considered “real pills for the brain”: they both nourish and improve memory, and think better and better with them. There is only one problem: everything is wrong with these promises.

Our brain includes many neurons that constantly “communicate” with each other, sending electrochemical signals.

Important elements of this global brain network are neurotransmitters and receptors, signals themselves and their “receivers”.

If there are more excitatory signals than inhibitory ones, the neuron continues the “chain reaction”, prompting other cells to do the same. This is the main mechanism of many phenomena, from joy and sadness to attention and memory.

Drugs from the group of nootropics and the like change the content of the signal or the rules of its reception and transmission. But “nutrition for the brain” does not supply any of the drugs. Basically, our brain feeds on glucose.

The effectiveness of nootropics is still very controversial – there are no reliable and large-scale studies that would prove that such a compound works in all the cases described, helps better placebo, and the result of the study can be reproduced. Nootropics basically remain a “dark horse” and help subjectively, that is, even two people who are comparable in terms of body condition and load conditions are affected differently.

Well, the second myth: nootropics not only do not nourish the brain, you will not become smarter from them either. Here the concentration of attention can increase, as well as improve memory (although, again, they may not help).

Nootropics are popular among athletes, students, freelancers and the elderly. In the same Silicon Valley, they are rejected: the effect is small, and the side effects of most include dozens of not entirely pleasant manifestations.

Conclusion: they are not “miracle drugs”, they do not nourish the brain and they will not add the mind either. But with the right application, they can help healthy people learn a little more knowledge. Be sure to consult a doctor before taking it!

Let’s go into more detail: what is replacing the “caffeine bombs”

Stories about drugs that help you pass a project overnight or learn an entire textbook fill the Internet. The most courageous experimenters move from “caffeine bombs” of coffee brewed on cola to various pills and their combinations. Let’s consider the most popular options – both time-tested and “fashionable novelties”.

The oldest nootropic

The most famous and oldest of the nootropics is piracetam. It was opened back in the 1960s in Belgium. It helps to form new neural connections, improve and prolong concentration on tasks, no matter what.

Piracetam and its derivatives are prescribed to “awaken” the functions of speech and motor skills after strokes, reduce the depressed state in schizophrenia and other mental disorders. The drug is cheap, found everywhere, has contraindications, and in no large-scale review has Cochrane shown a confident and stable effect. It helps a little to restore speech skills after a stroke, but the harm may be more beneficial. It can be imported to European countries and Canada only by prescription for personal needs, in the USA it was included in the list of dietary supplements for some time, and now it is excluded from all lists of both medicines and approved food additives.

Psychostimulants in the treatment of ADHD and not only

Another well-known group of “miracle pills” includes methylphenidate-based drugs that have been developed and are actively used in the United States for attention deficit disorder. The mechanism of action of all drugs with this active component is almost the same: methylphenidate refers to psychostimulants. In addition to increasing concentration, it causes a feeling of vivacity, a surge of strength and … dependence.

Many have noted the similarity of the composition and action of methylphenidate with amphetamine-type compounds. .

From piracetam to fonturacetam

Fonturacetam, better known as Phenotropil, is perhaps the most popular among those who are actively engaged in mental activity. It was created in the same 60s on the basis of piracetam to improve the concentration of attention primarily among astronauts and pilots. This is a fairly powerful psychostimulant, it increases energy levels, helps to concentrate and not feel tired (the brain, like all similar drugs, does not “nourish”, and you will not become smarter with it).

The drug is prescription, it is also known for a range of side effects, including insomnia and drowsiness, irritability and aggressiveness. The World Anti-Doping Agency has included it in the list of banned drugs for athletes, which, on the one hand, indicates its effectiveness. On the other hand, the mechanism of action is not completely clear, there are no massive reliable studies, there are a lot of side effects, and not all of them help clarity of thinking. It is not recommended for healthy people.

The “star” of brain stimulators

Modafinil is a new trend of biohackers and, as they say, a favorite of people in intellectual and creative fields of activity. Although the drug itself is not new: it was created in the 1970s for the treatment of narcolepsy (pathological drowsiness). According to some data, it actively helps to concentrate attention for several days, increases efficiency. A few studies indicate an inability to develop addiction, the absence of withdrawal symptoms, bright side effects. But there are nuances.

In general, scientists agree that modafinil is able to improve short-term memory, especially when memorizing numbers, formulas and pattern recognition.

But most of the positive effects of modafinil are manifested in “low-productivity” volunteers, as well as in people with a low IQ. We draw conclusions!

GABA and other acids

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and other glutamic acid derivatives are referred to as “natural nootropics”.

The evidence of the effects is controversial: in the USSR, scientists received a State prize for the discovery of the effect of b-phenyl-γ-aminobutyric acid, in the USA it was even excluded from the list of dietary supplements.

GABA, which is part of several drugs popular with us, as well as in Japan, also does not belong to substances with well-proven effectiveness.

In general, our scientific community believes that there is a positive effect on brain functions. And also drugs of this series reduce headache with hangover syndrome.

Aminoacetic acid is another contender in the fight for minds. Her medications help in the fight against anxiety, drowsiness and general weakness (and with a hangover, too). Small sweet pills are sold without a prescription and are actively recommended “by word of mouth” as a medicine “for the mind and nerves”. And although this compound is really needed in the body, among the serious studies on its effect on cognitive abilities, there was only one: in the therapy of schizophrenia. Moreover, the dosage at which the therapeutic effect was detected is almost 55 times higher than the maximum recommended by manufacturers.

Doping for the mind: what really helps?

Alas, the conclusions are not encouraging: no pill is guaranteed to help stimulate the brain to work effectively. Many compounds, including those in a cup of coffee, are capable of not feeling tired for a while and giving false cheerfulness. But a person with a normal IQ is not destined to become even smarter with the help of various “miracle pills” yet.

Absolutely do not drink drugs “for prevention” or “just in case”. If it is difficult to process a large amount of information, you should go to the doctor and find out the reason, and at the same time clarify how to correct the situation.

Excessive stimulation of any processes in the body is life on credit. Then you will need to pay for the spent resources with interest. But you can start doing something so that these resources accumulate with a reserve, and the brain is not afraid to spend them without spurring from the outside.


It is well known that antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, protect cells from damage by disarming free radicals. Brain cells are particularly vulnerable to these troublemakers because the brain produces more free radicals per gram of tissue than any other organ. Antioxidants also protect neurons by keeping blood vessels elastic and open, providing nutrients to the brain.

Recent studies show that taking extra vitamins can help preserve memory, especially with age. Researchers from the Australian University of Sydney tested 117 people in a nursing home, conducting a series of cognitive tests. Those who regularly took vitamin C scored higher.

There are other substances that many studies over the years have linked to healthy brain function: beta-carotene, iron, zinc, B12 and folic acid.

Real “nutrition for the brain”

Glucose is necessary for the brain, this is a fact. But not just her. Most researchers agree that the most reliable way to protect our brain cells with age is simply to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, which are full of antioxidants and nutrients, and also help prevent atherosclerosis.

Information Diet

The “dopamine diet”, despite its controversial nature, has one main advantage: filtering the data coming to the brain. A restrictive approach helps to reduce information overload, discard unnecessary facts and distractions, and finally, it is better to concentrate on the necessary tasks and not clog up memory with unnecessary data. Perhaps this is the key to adapting our body to new living conditions, thanks to which the need for “magic pills” will not arise.

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