Experiment: Twice-a-day I.Q.

brainspeedOriginally published in the Toronto Star on January 31, 2006.  Preface:  For this article, my cool editor Jon Filson at the Toronto Star suggested I try out some highly marketed supplement pills for enhancing my brain-power, and then write about it.  I complied, but I added an angle of my own:  I convinced my long-suffering sister to be the “control group”.  Instead of downing supplements, she ate pizza.  This article is the result.

“One pill makes you larger, and the other makes you small.  And the ones that mother gives you, don’t do anything at all.”
— Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”

The health  store next door now contains, theoretically at least, all of the ingredients for Superman.  “Natural” is the watchword, and the “alternative medicine” industry proffers a pill for any ill, yours for the swallowing.  What sets the “natural world” apart from the pharmaceutical one is the bent toward betterment rather than healing.  Newer products offer something original:  poppable brainpower.  There are now dozens, and Google can lead you to all of them.  “Brainspeed” is one such dietary supplement, made by Natrol, and comprised primarily of vitamins.

A couple of things to keep in mind.  First, Natrol has already settled a $5 million lawsuit in New York with regards to its line of muscle-enhancing supplements.  The allegation?  False advertising.  Another settlement, this one worth $250,000, was reached in California, after Natrol was accused of “making false and misleading advertising claims for their chitosan-based weight-loss products, and with selling weight-loss products that contained too much lead.”

Second, Natrol also landed itself in trouble when it undertook to sponsor the United States Chess Federation last year.  It’s the nerd equivalent of a steroid company sponsoring the Olympics.

Natrol claims that Brainspeed can make one think faster.  It comes in three flavours:  “Perform”, “Attention” and “Memory”.  “Think Faster, Maintain Your Memory and Empower Your Mind”, proclaims Natrol.  It costs around $60 (U.S.) for 60 pills, and can be bought at several sites online – although it hasn’t been approved by Health Canada and thus isn’t legal in this country.

But do pills like  Brainspeed actually work?

The prospect of instant intellect was so tantalizing that I decided to try it.  I took two Brainspeed “Perform” pills each day for two weeks.  To make it interesting, I set up a sloppy control experiment:  My sister Shirin, a final-year U of T med student, consumed two slices of pizza daily, also for two weeks.  Both of us robust genetic specimens monitored our progress by keeping an “intelligence diary”, and testing ourselves using the online Brainspeedometer at www.brainspeed.com.  Let’s see who gets smarter.

Lab rat #1:  Showey Yazdanian
Online brain power assessment

Memory:  Below average
Performance: Above average
Attention span:  Below average

Lab rat #2:  Shirin Yazdanian
Online brain power assessment

Memory:  Below average
Performance:  Normal
Attention span:  Normal

Day 1
Showey (Brainspeed)

A putrid purple smell wafts from the purple bottle.   I wince, gingerly lift out a pill:  spotty and plummy, and the size of Australia.  I choke one down.  Vomit knots in the back of my throat like a churlish storm.  Quick…what’s the capital of Belize?  I have no idea.

I head to my physics class, or “naptime”.  The professor is so 80 years old and so boring that over the course of a lecture, he disappears.  Today he is wearing a tie.  Otherwise, all is normal, and I sleep the sweet and dreamless sleep of the ignorant.  But it’s early days.

Shirin (Pizza)
My experiment started with an innocent phone conversation:  “Shirin, would you mind eating two slices of pizza a day for a week to see if it makes you smarter?  I’ll pay for it, and mmmmmm….don’t you just love pizza?”  I wondered what the catch was.  I do love pizza, so even though all of Showey’s friends had refused her offer, I decided to accept.

Even if it doesn’t make me smarter, eating scads of pizza couldn’t hurt me…could it?

Day 2
Showey (Brainspeed)
One hundred and one years ago, Einstein had his “miracle year”, the year that he published four papers that changed the face of physics, including the celebrated paper on relativity.

It is my prediction that this year, 2005, will be equally miraculous, primarily because of Brainspeed.   I can’t wait to be a genius.

Shirin (Pizza)
I went out in search of pizza.  I never realized how many pizzariffic options there were in the frozen food aisle!

I decided to buy Deep and Delicious Mini Pizzas and eat two daily.

A whole day went by, and I didn’t do anything particularly intelligent or foolish.

For dinner, I ate two deluxe pizzas (green peppers and pepperoni).  Before bed, I found myself reaching for the book “World Religions” and reading about Hinduism.

Perhaps the pizza is making me smarter.


Day 3
Showey (Brainspeed)

I forgot to take my morning Brainspeed tablet.  Whoops.  I guess I should have gone for Brainspeed:  Memory.  Too late!

On second thought, though, maybe not.  Today I attended a materials science seminar.  Not only did I have no “memory” of it immediately afterward, but I also couldn’t pay “attention” to it and did not “perform” well at understanding it.  What I really need is Brainspeed:  Transplant.


Shirin (Pizza)

I just realized that the results of this study could be confounded because I have also been eating perogies every day this week.  How will I know which one is making me smarter? Today I OD’d on pizza and ate a vegetarian slice for lunch and two deluxe pizzas for dinner.  Again, I didn’t feel particularly smart or dumb.  But I do think I had more insight into the characters of Gilmore Girls today.  I also feel that my Pilates technique improved dramatically.  Between you and me, I am getting sick of pizza.  I wish I could eat something else, but ever since starting this pizza diet, I am full all of the time!


Day 5
Showey (Brainspeed)

Brainspeed seems to have a formidable side effect – a dull, low-frequency headache.  Life has acquired a new symmetry:  each morning, I pop my purple pill, invoke Satan, and then wait for a gong to start pounding my skull.  This side effect is also the only effect, as I am still dumb as a post.

Shirin (Pizza)

I feel fat and bloated.  Pizza sucks.  Nevertheless, I had two mini Hawaiian pizzas for dinner.  I hate you, Showey.


Day 6
Showey (Brainspeed)

I guess Brainspeed is so effective that the raw power of my invigorated neurons is causing my brain to implode, because my head kills.

Promptly I eat my words, cross myself, and test myself with the following brain-teaser:  “I’m hard yet soft; I’m coloured yet clear; I’m fruity and sweet.  I am jelly….what am I?”  Stay tuned.

Shirin (Pizza)

No more pizza.  I am on a pizza strike.  But don’ t tell Showey.


Day 7
Showey (Brainspeed)

Jelly!  I knew it was jelly.  I just realized that Natrol guarantees satisfaction with the product (or my money back)!  Brainspeed must really work, or Natrol would never make such a reckless statement.  I must be getting smarter.  So much smarter, in fact, that meeting up with my physics study group is probably a waste of time.

Shirin (Pizza)

I travelled back to Toronto from Kingston today, and guess what my parents had made for dinner?  Homemade pizza!


Day 10
Showey (Brainspeed)

I was murdered on my physics homework.  Dead as a doornail, I’m writing this from Hades right now.  It’s cold here.  Thanks, Brainspeed!  Thanks for nothing.  Seriously, it’s been 10 days – and 20 Brainspeed pills, each one seemingly more purple and massive than the last, and nothing is different.

If anything, I feel I’ve been more forgetful than usual.  I am usually careless with mathematics, but today in tutorial, I dropped a gaggle of negative signs and then divided by zero.  The chalkboard burst into flames, and I touched with the tips of my fingers the heat of the inferno.

Shirin (Pizza)

I’m sick with a bad cold.  I was reassured by Showey that if I “keep chugging pizza” I will feel better.  I wonder if Showey is in cahoots with McCains.  But I also can’t help wondering…has pizza been keeping me healthy?


Day 12
Showey (Brainspeed)

I can’t take this any more.  Not a jot smarter, and all jokes aside, as soon as I try to ingest a tablet, a tidal wave of nausea shudders through my body.  I’m going on a Brainspeed strike.  But don’t tell Shirin.  She’ll kill me for making her eat all that pizza.

Shirin (Pizza)

I end this experience with many more questions than answers.  My intelligence don’t appear to have changed, but pizza may be an effective preventative agent for the common cold.  In order to test the effect of daily pizza on cold prevention, I suggest a randomized controlled trial of pizza versus Cold FX.  However, although I saw glimpses of the possible positive effects of pizza during this week, the main results were bloating, a constant feeling of fullness, and weight gain.



Lab Rat #1:  Showey Yazdanian
Online brain power assessment
Memory:  Below average
Performance:  Above average
Attention span:  Below average

Lab Rat #2:  Shirin Yazdanian
Online brain power assessment
Memory:  Below average
Performance:  Normal
Attention span:  Normal

No change!  Not a bean!  It was almost as if we had done nothing at all…


The Science for (and against) brain boosting
A scientist plays God.  A company makes money with pills.  And a med student gets stuffed with pizza.  So why didn’t the pills work?  asks Showey Yazdanian.

Brainspeed professes to “increase the rate at which information travels from one cell to the next within your brain.”  This can only mean one thing:  Brainspeed is claiming to accelerate neurotransmitter processes.

Got that?

A close look at the ingredients in Brainspeed confirms this; they have been chosen so as to (theoretically) increase the production of the neurotransmitter called “acetylcholine”.

What’s key to know is this:  scientific types agree that acetylcholine is a hugely important neurotransmitter, involved in memory, learning and recall processes.

Natrol’s reasoning is that producing more of it will speed up one’s mental processes.

Here’s how Brainspeed is meant to work then:  Acetylccholine can be made in the brain from two chemicals:  acetyl-CoA and choline.

The thiamine and pantothenic acid in Brainspeed are intended to enhance levels of acetyl-CoA, whilst the niacin and DMAE in Brainspeed are supposed to support the production of choline.

Put them together and presto!  Your brain works faster.

But how sound is this logic?

The argument can be made that pumping a pile of acetylcholine into the brain is no guarantee of a cerebral superhighway.

That is, even if Brainspeed does manage to achieve higher levels of the neurotransmitter, unless the uptake rate at the neuron receptor sites also shoots up, the conclusion that the total speed of the process increases seems a bit weak.

To draw a very crude analogy:  one can stack up all of the bread in the world:  it still takes two minutes to make toast.

Not only that, but what are the odds that Brainspeed actually accomplishes its acetylcholine-boosting mission?

Reverting to the kitchen comparison, consider how difficult it is to bake a loafo f brad.  You can pile up all the flour you like, but if you don’t have the right quantities of sugar and yeast, not a whole lot is going to result.

In other words, says Mark Boulous, a medical student at the University of Toronto, “just because you have acteyl-CoA and choline in the blood or GI system, doesn’t mean they’ll miraculously join to form acetylcholine in the brain.”

Dana Molckovsky, a Toronto-based pharmacist, agrees.  “Essentially, you’re orally ingesting a bunch of vitamins,” she says.  “What’s the likelihood of these orally ingested compounds getting from the blood to the brain?  Getting past the blood-brain barrier is tough.”

Mucking about with brain chemistry appears to be most effective when the brain truly as a problem.

Many of the treatments for Alzheimer disease, for instance, are chemicals that serve to facilitate the increase of the concentration of acetylcholine.

And yet even here, there is no consensus.  A 2004 review article in the Journals of Gerontology, for instance, states that although some studies suggest thiamine has a positive effect on cognitive function, other studies show no effect at all.

As for niacin, as Brainspeed contends, it’s true that a 1995 study found that the supplement appeared to increase memory test scores.

However, the dosage in the study was 425 mg (Brainspeed provides 250 mg).  Not only that, but the niacin was ingested in its “nicotinic acid” form and “xanthinol nicotinate” forms, whereas Brainspeed uses the niacinamide form.

Does that matter?  Perhaps.

The form of the chemical can make all the difference.  Iron, for instance, is an essential nutrient.  But there’s a reason we eat things like meat, tofu and spinach instead of chunks of lamp post to get iron into our bodies.

DMAE, a key component of Brainspeed, is probably the most controversial ingredient.  Its very link with acetylcholine has been challenged, and a 1981 study established that it is a lousy cure for Alzheimer’s.

“Your nervous system isn’t privy to being toyed with, if it’s healthy and functioning,” states Molockovsky.  “Acetylcholine is only one of many neurotransmitters, all of which play different roles in the brain.  It’s just not that simple.”



The funny thing about all of this is that it doesn’t matter.  Natrol can essentially say what it wants about Brainspeed.  Call a product “natural” and for the most part, testing and studies are not required.

But there is a thin margin between praise and irrational rubbish.  Natrol makes a load of glossy, histrionic claims about Brainspeed.  I cannot say with certainty whether or not they are correct.

I will say, however, that the human body is not a push-button apparatus.  What I really object to is the swagger of Natrol’s claims – any company, really, boasting that one can season the brain to taste.

The human brain isn’t soup.  It is the most beautiful and mysterious machine in the world.

Ultimately, I side with Molckovsky:  it’s not that simple.


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