I do not approach the idea of taking any drug lightly, even one prescribed to me by a doctor. So when I was setting up my experiment on the effects of different drugs on studying, I knew that I had to choose the subjects of my experiment carefully.
There are a lot of interesting things out there to consider. There are claims that simple vitamins and oils can help you study better, drugs made by neuroscientists, and clinical drugs from China. I should mention as well that I am very skeptical of drugs in general. Going to the doctor at all is always my last resort. While I do believe there is science to back up these drugs, which I will cite below, I will also be tempering my eventual results with a look at what the practical ramifications of the drugs might be.
The type of drug we are talking about here is called a “Nootropic” and generally refers to a drug which improves memory. However, this is a broad category which includes focus enhancing drugs like the brand-name Ritalin (as well as other drugs used to treat depression and other mental conditions). I could not even count how many potential drugs were listed as nootropics on Wikipedia – the category even includes Nicotine! Clearly I had to do a lot of parsing in order to decide what drugs stood the best chance of providing good results with no side effects.
I first heard about this drug from The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss and ended up using it in my experiment on how to sleep less and get more done in order to increase REM sleep. I was pleased with the results of this last experiment and when I learned that it was actually better known for the treatment of memory conditions I became intrigued.
Huperzine A has undergone clinical testing on both animals and humans, and it has been shown that “the curative effect [on Alzheimer’s disease] was significant” and that it “relieves memory deficits.” It has also undergone trials form the U.S. National Institute of Health. Many of the studies which have been done were conducted in China (it is of Chinese origin, as well). Most of these studies focus upon patients with conditions effecting their memory and I have personally not found any conclusive scientific study targeting students without such cognitive disorders. That said, the same basic principles that help memory in patients with disorders should theoretically still apply (increased blood flow, protection of neurons from toxins and so on). Perhaps the most promising study is one which liked Huperzine A to nerve growth factor (which does exactly what it sounds like – help growth!)
to Here’s what WebMD has to say on the matter:
Huperzine A is used for Alzheimer’s disease, memory and learning enhancement, and age-related memory impairment. It is also used for treating a muscle disease called myasthenia gravis, for increasing alertness and energy, and for protecting against agents that damage the nerves such as nerve gases.
The WebMD article also goes on to list the side-effects. There appear to be some side-effects (mostly along the lines of nausea/vomiting) that I would have experienced already the last time I took the drug if I were going to at all. It also warns not to take the drug for more than a month, which I will not be doing.
Dr. Amen’s “Brain and Memory Power Boost”
This one made the list because of the fact that Dr. Amen is a legitimate neuroscientist who studies brain health. The product page promises “healthier memory, cognitive clarity, mental focus, and feeling sharper.” At $6/day and by the far the most expensive drug, it better do all that and more!
Dr. Amen’s proclivity towards monitizing his position as a neuroscientist with books like “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life” definitely set off a few alarm bells in my mind. Its not that I blame him; I even appreciate that he is making neuroscience more mainstream. On the other hand, this article on Quackwatch is an interesting read.
I chose this particular drug out of all Dr. Amen’s plethora of available drugs because it seems to be his “flagship” drug. Aside from costing the most and appearing first in his store, it also promises the most in the fact sheet with the drug. As you can see from the fact sheet, each pill in fact contains 7 different drugs (in fact, one of them is the above-mentioned Huperzine A). Once again many of the studies seem to be related to Alzheimer’s disease, but I suspect this largely has to do with the fact that there will naturally be more funding for studies on specific memory related diseases than general studies on improving memory.
Of the drugs in this pill, a couple did stick out to me. Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALC) has has been known to have a positive effect on the hippocampus (which is known to be responsible for encoding/decoding long term memories). Here’s an excerpt from the study:
Our findings suggest that the benefits of ALC reported in previous clinical studies are underscored by the [effects on hippocampal] metabolism
The other drug which stuck out was Ginkgo Biloba, which is another extract from an Asian plant. On one hand, there have been studies which have shown that the drug does not delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s or improve memory in any way. On the other hand, there are several studies which purport to show an increase in attention. I’m not quite sure what to make of this, but the fact that I’ve heard the name before I did any research suggests something of the current western infatuation with Asian herbal medicine.
I am especially looking forward to comparing the results of Dr. Amen’s “wonder-drug” to the pure Huperzine A and following herbs, each of which cost a small fraction of the price.
My Own Cocktail of Herbs & Oils
(15 cents / dose = 30 cents / day)
Once I started doing this research it quickly became clear that there are a lot of different companies out there trying to capitalize on our desire to become smarter. After the two drugs listed above I personally find the science to become considerably more questionable (see the last part about “runner-up” drugs). After reading this BBC article on simple herbs I also started thinking about all the bold claims I’ve heard, like fish oil and omega 3s being important for brain health.
As I said, I tend to shy away from drugs. The inclusion of this “cocktail” in the trial was an attempt to compare more natural solutions against mainstream drugs. Of course, the line between a herb and a drug is very thin… even Huperzine A is just a Chinese plant distilled and concentrated!
So, here’s my cocktail:
- Ginkgo Biloba 500mg 180 capsules ($8.99 = 5 cents / dose)
- Ginseng, American 550 mg 100 Caps ($6.99 = 7 cents / dose)
- Fish Oil Concentrate with Omega-3 Fatty Acids – 400 Softgels ($11.49 = 3 cents / dose)
Other Drugs (Runner-Ups)
There are many drugs that did not make the list. Maybe if I have time later I will come back and redo the experiment with these other drugs. I think my decision not to include them may have something to do with my natural aversion to fancy sounding designer drugs which lack clear and well-presented scientific evidence on their website. Its hard to make sense of a nutrition label with 20+ ingredients on it including rosemary, green tea leaf and dozens of things I don’t recognize. To me this seems to rather be the “buckshot technique” of attempting to include as many brain drugs in a single compound, patenting it, and marketing it as the new best thing. In addition, while the overall reviews of many of these products on websites were generally positive, I was able to find well-written and cited arguments against some of them (which strikes me as fishy). Anyway, here they are:
One last note: in order to keep the study “blind” in concordance with my setup, I was forced to complicate my experiment by repackaging the pills so I did not recognize my own cocktail 😉
Did I miss anything? I’m (currently) not a PhD myself, nor do I have any authority other than a penchant for research and independent experimentation.
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