The brain is a product of its complex and multi-million year history of solving the problems of survival for its host, you, in an ever-changing environment. Overall, your brain is fairly fast but not too efficient, which is probably why so many of us utilize stimulants such as coffee and nicotine to perform tasks more efficiently. Thus far, no one has been able to design a therapy that can make a person truly smarter. So if we look at the so-called memory boosters and cognitive enhancers on the market today, we see that they contain caffeine, sugar, some amino acids, and a few vitamins that do nothing except make us a little poorer. At this point in time in the 21st century, nothing—let me repeat that—nothing exists that can truly make us smarter.
The fact that science has not yet invented a true brain enhancer has not stopped people from selling magical elixirs obtained from unusual sources, e.g. jellyfish, which have unusual names, with vague claims that it will reduce the effects of aging on the brain or just make you smarter. Why do so many people fall for this nonsense? The answer is easy to summarize in three words—the placebo effect. Essentially, we want these drugs to do something, anything; so we fool ourselves into thinking that they do. After all, you’ve just spent a lot of money on this pill! The Internet and television is bursting with claims that special pills and elixirs that will enhance your focus, mental energy, and memory. Fortunately, most of them are so utterly useless that they will not harm you. Most of these drugs are useless because they are not able to cross the blood brain barrier. This is the Achilles’ heel of so many drugs that might offer something beneficial to the brain – they never get into the brain. Evolution made certain that our brain rests comfortably behind a series of biological firewalls. Many popular remedies depend entirely upon the placebo effect because they cannot cross the blood brain barrier.
One recent case makes the point. Prevagen® is a commercial product currently being marketed as a memory supplement; its active ingredient is claimed to be the jellyfish protein apoaequorin. This incredibly large, highly water soluble molecule would never be able to make it into the brain. First, large proteins are almost completely metabolized by intestinal enzymes so that the individual amino acids are available for absorption. After all, this is the job of the intestines, i.e. to break down foods into the individual components for absorption. Sometimes short strings of amino acids are occasionally transported across the gut-blood barrier; these few molecules will be digested and completely destroyed by the digestive enzymes within the liver. That is the job of the liver. There’s an important lesson here: for a drug to act upon the brain it needs to actually get into the brain.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of charlatans eager to mislead potential customers with flimsy pseudoscientific evidence in order to make profit. Why are we so vulnerable to the placebo effect? When it comes to therapies that claim to enhance brain function, never underestimate the power of your own expectations. Your mind plays a major role in how drugs affect you. We all want to believe that the pills we take will help us feel and function better; thanks to the poorly understood phenomenon of the placebo effect, we do sometimes, but only for a while, benefit even from the most bogus of elixirs. As Tinker Bell once said, “You just have to believe!”
Featured image: Abstract. CC0 via Pixabay.