The packaging of so-called “brain boosting” supplements typically promises buyers exciting results like mental clarity, enhanced creativity, and a razor sharp memory. What you actually get inside of that bottle, is likely to be something quite different.
For instance, it might include a drug licensed in Russia to treat traumatic brain injuries, or one used to treat stroke complications in Europe, according to new research.
An analysis published Wednesday in Neurology found that eight cognitive enhancement supplements and two workout supplements contained five potent drugs that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These are supplements, sometimes referred to as nootropics, that are easy to purchase online.
These drugs are licensed in other countries, where they’ve been used to treat conditions ranging from the aftermath of a stroke to traumatic brain injuries. They include:
- Omberacetam (also called Noopept): used to treat traumatic brain injury in Russia (and in animal models), according to the study.
- Aniracetam: Once used to treat stroke aftermath in Japan, and Alzheimer’s in Europe, according to a 2002 paper.
- Vinpocetine: a prescription drug used to treat stroke and cognitive impairments in China, Russia, and Germany. The FDA has waffled on whether this ingredient should be allowed in supplements, but as of 2019 does not allow it.
- Phenibut: a drug used to treat anxiety, but also hyped as a study drug that can cause overdoses in large amounts.
- Picamilon: another Russian prescription drug used to treat neurological conditions.
In the ten supplements the scientists studied, drugs like omberacetam, vinpocetine, and aniracetam were listed directly on the label, despite being illegal for use in supplements in the US.
The fact that these drugs were present in supplements isn’t exactly surprising to Pieter Cohen, the study’s first author and a general internist at Cambridge Health Alliance in Boston. Cohen has a history of finding that companies that sell supplements, ranging from workout supplements to sexual energy concoctions, don’t always accurately report what’s inside.
“If you wanted to shop for some of these supplements with these unapproved drugs on the label, they would be tremendously easy to find,” Cohen tells Inverse. “We can’t be assured that products that are being sold to improve memory, sharpness, wit, you name it, are free of foreign drugs.”
“Right now we have to avoid all supplements that are being marketed as brain boosters,” he continues.
The risks of a “brain boost”– Cohen doesn’t have the brand names of the drugs tested in the study due to limitations of the chemistry lab he collaborated with. However, he found these supplements by cross-referencing the National Institute of Health’s Supplement Label Database and the Natural Medicines Database.