Of course, no pill can make you a genius if you aren't one, Flowers for Algernon style. So what exactly are brain boosters?
"It could mean several things. It could mean herbs or nutrients that enhance clarity of thinking, alertness, focus, concentration, memory, and even mood," says Ray Sahelian, MD, author of Mind Boosters and a family practitioner in Marina Del Ray, Calif.
"Most commonly, people will notice that they are more focused and alert, that they are more motivated, that they are processing information faster," he says.
That is, if they notice any effects.
"Some have tried and have gotten benefits. Others may not have noticed anything," Sahelian says.
Brain boosters may appear to stimulate mental activity, but they are not stimulants in the strict sense, as things such as caffeine, ephedrine, or amphetamines are. In many cases, no one really knows how they act on the brain.
"Herbs will have several different compounds in them, as opposed to, let's say, a drug like amphetamine, which is basically one compound, one molecule," Sahelian says. "Herbs will have a set of several or several dozen compounds in them. It's difficult to pinpoint which one of them is the most active or whether it's the combination of many of them that are producing the result."
In general, the idea that herbs or nutrients can boost brainpower isn't proven, however.
There hasn't been much research on whether an intelligent, healthy young person can function better intellectually under the influence of reputed brain boosters, and when the research has been done, results have varied.
Herbs for Thought
A lot of recent research has focused on ginkgo biloba, the leaf of the ginkgo tree, which is native to China and one of the oldest plants on the planet.
Ginkgo is particularly interesting to researchers because of its potential to treat Alzheimer's disease and age-related mental decline. Several studies have shown that it does help these conditions, and it's routinely prescribed in places like Germany and France.
It's believed that ginkgo works by thinning the blood and thereby improving oxygen flow to the brain. The brain is a glutton for oxygen, so it's possible that even a slight lack of circulation can affect its performance.
As a brain booster for people with normal mental abilities, it remains controversial.
For example, a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology in 2000 found that ginkgo improved attention. A 2001 study in the journal Human Psychopharmacology suggested that it improves memory. Nevertheless, in a review of studies on ginkgo in healthy people, researchers found no good evidence that it improved mental abilities, according to a 2002 report in Psychopharmacology Bulletin.
You should not take ginkgo biloba with any nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin or ibuprofen because they also thin the blood. Combining the two may cause excessive bleeding. The same goes for blood thinners such as warfarin.
Huperzine-A, derived from the Chinese moss Huperzia seratta, is another herb that has been studied as a potential Alzheimer's therapy. It may also work as a brain booster in healthy people, but few studies have looked at that.
One study out of China showed that it improved memory and learning in a small group of students. "It has been used in China much more than it has in the U.S.," Sahelian says.
Huperzine-A appears to block an enzyme in the brain that breaks down acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter. Acetylcholine carries information across synapses, the space between brain cells. "More acetylcholine stays in the brain, and that's how it can be helpful in memory," Sahelian says.
Beyond herbs, a number of nutrients may work as brain boosters.
An omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oils, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is thought to be important to an infant's developing brain. DHA may also work as a brain booster by helping brain cells communicate, according to Sahelian.
"Interestingly, the lining of our brain cells is very highly concentrated with fatty acids, particularly DHA," he says.
One 1999 review of studies on DHA, published in the journal Pharmacological Research, found that the nutrient is essential to normal brain function, and that a diet rich in DHA improves learning, while a lack of DHA causes learning ability to suffer.
"Another one that I really like is aceytl-L-carnatine. That's becoming quite popular," Sahelian says.
Acetyl-L-carnitine may work as a brain booster by helping maintain brain cells. Not much is known about its effects in healthy people, but one study found that people with early Alzheimer's and mild memory impairment benefited from taking it.
Despite the lack of evidence, Sahelian says he thinks it improves mental focus and alertness. "I noticed the effect within two hours," he says. "It also makes one more motivated, and you can concentrate better and get things done faster."
DMAE (2-dimethylaminoethanol), also thought to alter levels of acetylcholine in the brain, is another one that Sahelian says he can get behind based on anecdotal evidence alone. There is little in the way of scientific data to support claims that it boosts brainpower.
Nevertheless, "Most people will notice within an hour or two of taking it that they're thinking faster and sharper and that they have better focus," he says.
He says that taking too much can cause side effects such as restlessness, irritability, and tension in the neck muscles.
All these things are considered dietary supplements, not drugs, so they're not subject to the rigorous approval process that drugs are. The FDA limits the claims manufacturers can make about supplements to some degree, but you're largely left to judge for yourself.
If you're willing to shell out some cash -- for example, a bottle of 60 acetyl-L-carnitine capsules, at 250 mg, sells for about $20 -- you might find something you like. But it's a process of trial and error.
"It's difficult to predict how an individual will respond. There's no blood study or spinal tap or anything we can do that will tell us, 'Well, this is the perfect herb for you,'" Sahelian says.
Sahelian also points out that brain boosters won't help if you're sleep-deprived. "Deep sleep, out of anything, is probably the most important factor in preserving memory and clarity of thinking during the day," he says.