Harvard study: Unapproved drugs in brain-boosting supplements

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Published: January, 2021

We all want to improve memory and thinking skills. But taking supplements that promise to boost cognition could be dangerous, according to a Harvard-led study published Sept. 23, 2020, in Neurology Clinical Practice. Scientists analyzed 10 different products that were marketed online to enhance thinking skills, and discovered all of them contained prescription drugs not approved for use in the United States, such as omberacetam, aniracetam, vinpocetine, phenibut, or picamilon. These medications are used in other countries — including Russia, Germany, and China — to treat conditions such as alcohol withdrawal, anxiety, brain injuries, concussion, dementia, insomnia, and strokes. Many of the supplements contained a cocktail of several drugs — combinations never tested in humans — that weren't always reported on the label. Also missing: the actual dosages, which scientists say were four times greater than doses doled out at foreign pharmacies. "And you can't figure out how much unapproved drug you're getting by reading the label," says lead researcher Dr. Pieter Cohen, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who studies dietary supplements. "Taking these drugs can have direct effects on your body, plus side effects and interactions with your other medications." A safer bet: Get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (like brisk walking) every week, and eat a Mediterranean diet. Both have been shown to support brain health.

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