Happiness in a Bottle and other Brain Drinks Tested

Penn neuroscientist Martha Farah was curious about some of the “neuro drinks” that are so popular among students for revving them up, slowing them down, or sometimes both at the same time.

So the head of Penns’ Center for Neuroscience and Society asked some experts to look into the matter and report back at an event yesterday afternoon. She also organized a small experiment to see if a couple of popular brands had any obvious effects.

Tony Rostain, who is an expert on adolescent psychiatry, talked about neurotransmitters, the potential effects of amino acids and some of the other weird ingredients in these drinks. Thomas McLellan, a former Deputy Director of the Office of the National Drug Control Policy, explained why the FDA doesn’t crack down on some of the claims surrounding them.

Companies don’t need FDA approval for so-called neutraceuticals – vitamins and other formulations of substances that occur naturally in food, he explained. If someone writes to FDA with a letter of concern, the agency might look into a claim, as it apparently did for “happiness in a bottle”. Though the company claimed that an amino acid included in the drink has been shown to prevent Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease, the effects are negligible. “I’d say what you have is water in a bottle,” he said. And some other stuff, including sugar.  

Whether it supplies happiness is a subjective claim. Some might argue that Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch supplies happiness in a carton. It all depends on your taste.

The happiness drink, called NeuroBliss, was one of three mystery drinks passed out at the event. One was a weird shade of white, another a slightly intimidating blue. I chose the other one, which was purple cool-aid color. We sipped our drinks at the beginning of the session, and I thought I might have felt a tinge of that woozy feeling I sometimes get from MSG after eating too much cheap Chinese food.

We were asked to close our eyes and raise our color-coded cups if we felt relaxed, then, if we felt energized, and finally, if we felt our appetites were suppressed. I didn’t feel any of those so I didn’t vote. The blue concoction got six votes for being relaxing, zero for energizing and two for appetite suppression. It was the placebo - a mix of blue Gatorade and club soda.

The whitish drink was the neuro bliss, though only four people reported feeling relaxed and four were energized by it. My purple drink was labeled something like “ultimate relaxation,” and I discovered that it contained the sleep-associated hormone melatonin. That got two votes for relaxation, three for energizing and two for appetite suppression.

But McLellan thinks these drinks will continue to do a brisk business. “It’s part of the human condition,” he said. “We all want and edge and we want it fast.”  On the other hand, we know that beer and wine kill brain cells, which could potentially take away our edge. But we drink them anyway, and have been since the stone age.