The science behind 'brain drinks' that are supposed to make you smarter

Photo: Mental Mojo
Originally Published: 

Biohacking is fully mainstream and the smart drinks that were promised by sci-fi in the 70s are officially here. I’ve been on this bandwagon for years, so when my favorite brain-enhancing supplement company started sending me ads for their smart drink, I was on board. But I’m also skeptical. When I first tried nootropics, another name for cognitive enhancers or “brain supplements,” they didn’t really do much except give me insomnia. It took weeks for me to see any benefits and months to notice what I perceived to be changes in attention. The new breed of nootropic energy drinks promise instant boosts in focus and energy. Can they deliver?

I tried a few, and then decided to get a little insight from a nootropic supplement developer about how they work. I also spoke to a neurologist about whether they work or if I’m just swimming happily in the placebo effect.

The first thing that you should know is that a lot of the “productivity boosts” that smart drugs promise rely on a large dose of caffeine. One cup of coffee has around 95 mg of the good stuff. Some of the nootropic drinks on the market have up to 300 mg of it. I’m no coffee lightweight but that seemed like a lot even to me, so I asked Ilene Ruhoy, a neurologist at the Center for Healing Neurology, if it was okay to have that much caffeine. “I recommend no more than 250 mg a day,” she says. More than that can cause problems, especially for those that are sensitive to it. While caffeine is a nootropic, she tells Mic, too much can cause irritability, sleeplessness, gastritis, and cardiac problems.

Being caffeinated may be a socially encouraged high, but caffeine is clearly still a drug with side effects. It can impact your health in a myriad of ways. Some other ingredients frequently found in “natural” nootropics are also drugs. They’re called “racetams," a class of chemically synthesized drugs. Nootropic lovers often cite the benefits of racetams for cognitive enhancement, but no clinical trials exist to back claims, and a study released recently shows that many nootropics have traces of piracetam, a substance which is not approved by the FDA.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t work at all or that they are definitely dangerous, but it does mean that they are not proven to work and they are not proven safe. A lot of people find that taking racetams feels like being on speed and that the side effects outweigh the benefits.


Armed with this information, I felt like I knew enough about nootropics to experiment. I stayed away from the ones with super high caffeine content and I stopped taking the noot that I have been taking for years so that I wouldn’t be mixing smart drugs.

I love Qualia, the nootropic I take on the regs, but I was pretty thrilled to take a break from it because it’s $139 a bottle. All this is to say that nootropic drinks may not affect you in the same way they affect me — not just because human body chemistry is different, but also because I take nootropics regularly, and have found the effects to be cumulative.

Back to the drinks: On the first day, I tried Mental Mojo, a little packet of powder that dissolves in water. I was most excited about this one, because I knew that it was developed with the aid of a neurologist. Nootropics do not require the kind of rigorous clinical testing that pharmaceuticals undergo because they are, again, not approved by the FDA and therefore are not regulated by them.

Photo: Mental Mojo

So, I wanted to stick with the brands that do some independent research. Alexander LaCroix, the CEO at Mental Mojo told me that he started developing Mental Mojo when he was in law school. “The reality was that other students were buying prescription drugs like Adderall to compete academically,” he says. “If there was that palpable a need, then I knew there was a market. I wanted to create a safe and effective alternative. Our first tag line was, ‘all focus, no felony.’”

To reiterate, the safety of nootropics is not proven, and LaCroix encouraged folks to be aware of that. When I asked about people who are concerned about the safety of nootropics, La Croix says, “Their concerns are valid. There are a lot of people out there just trying to get rich. Choose a product with high ethical and formulaic standards.”

LaCroix is definitely trying to create a product with those kinds of standards, but you should talk to a doctor if you plan on taking any type of cognitive enhancers. "The use of multiple supplements should be monitored as several have toxicity profiles and can interact not only with medications but with each other. I want the public to be safe,” Ruhoy told Vice.

The Mental Mojo samples that LaCroix sent me gratis (regularly $29.99 for ten packets) was kiwi strawberry flavored. The color was a little neon, and even though LaCroix told me that making it palatable was one of the hardest parts of development, it tasted pretty okay. It was kind of like a more bitter electrolyte drink. And it worked for me. Within minutes, I was thinking clearly and typing quickly, a lot faster than usual. I stopped sipping when I got jittery, but I was thrilled at my productivity.

The next day I tried LGND Silk. The company sent me four to try, but they run $69.99 for 24. The ginger grapefruit flavor was truly delicious — tart, spicy and smooth. It made me feel alert and relaxed and easily able to get my thoughts out. Sure, that’s my job, but it doesn’t always feel as easy as it did that day. LGND felt like a soft, smart boost.

I don’t know if it was the drink or this particular spoke in my menstrual cycle, but I felt emotionally balanced. When I hit what could have been a hyper emotional professional snag, I felt competent to deal with it rationally instead of hijacked by feelings. I ended up not finishing LGND; though it was refreshing and tasty, I felt like I had hit peak effectiveness about two-thirds through the drink, and it was starting to make me jittery.

The last drink I tried was TruBrain ($29 for 10). TruBrain is one of the most popular and widely respected nootropics on the market. I was thrilled when they sent me a box of 20. The packets contain a small amount of liquid. I’m not sure what flavor it’s supposed to be, but it’s sweet and non-offensively fruity. It made me feel clear-headed, but there was none of the borderline over-caffeination of the other drinks I tried, which I found surprising, because it has 100 mg of caffeine, which is more than a shot of espresso. Could it be that they’d found the right combination of caffeine and L-Theanine, which combine in a synergistic way? TruBrain was my favorite of the bunch.

I liked the effects of Mental Mojo the most and the taste of LGND the best, but overall, I’d say that TruBrain is the only one that is tempting me to switch from my usual nootropic supplement. The combination of easy-to-carry packaging (no water required) and the motivation it gave me make it my personal fave of the three, but honestly, I will take all of these again on days when I need a little extra je ne sais quoi.

I showed Ruhoy the ingredients of all the nootropic energy drinks I tried. “These drinks include well-known and commonly used compounds that improve cognitive function,” she told Mic, and explained the difference between taking a nootropic supplement and drinking a nootropic energy drink. “The drinks are just another form of administration but with extra sugar and calories. Since they have to be taken regularly to work, drinks are not an efficient or healthy means of consuming them.” In other words, nootropics are not one-and-done. You’ll want to take them regularly to see any real changes in cognition.

To sum up, most nootropics contain a cocktail of uppers — potentially unproven cognitive enhancers — and the drinks probably don’t do much more than caffeinate you. I asked Ruhoy if nootropics can indeed make you "smarter" or more productive if they are taken long-term. Or is my experience all in my head? “It is hard to generalize,” Ruhoy says, “Long-term studies have not been done in many cases. We are trying to understand if attempts at altering brain chemistry can sustain even short-term gains.”