Of course, no pill can make you a genius if you aren't one, Flowers for Algernon style. So what exactly are brain boosters?
"It could mean several things. It could mean herbs or nutrients that enhance clarity of thinking, alertness, focus, concentration, memory, and even mood," says Ray Sahelian, MD, author of Mind Boosters and a family practitioner in Marina Del Ray, Calif.
"Most commonly, people will notice that they are more focused and alert, that they are more motivated, that they are processing information faster," he says.
That is, if they notice any effects.
"Some have tried and have gotten benefits. Others may not have noticed anything," Sahelian says.
Brain boosters may appear to stimulate mental activity, but they are not stimulants in the strict sense, as things such as caffeine, ephedrine, or amphetamines are. In many cases, no one really knows how they act on the brain.
"Herbs will have several different compounds in them, as opposed to, let's say, a drug like amphetamine, which is basically one compound, one molecule," Sahelian says. "Herbs will have a set of several or several dozen compounds in them. It's difficult to pinpoint which one of them is the most active or whether it's the combination of many of them that are producing the result."
In general, the idea that herbs or nutrients can boost brainpower isn't proven, however.
There hasn't been much research on whether an intelligent, healthy young person can function better intellectually under the influence of reputed brain boosters, and when the research has been done, results have varied.
Herbs for Thought
A lot of recent research has focused on ginkgo biloba, the leaf of the ginkgo tree, which is native to China and one of the oldest plants on the planet.
Ginkgo is particularly interesting to researchers because of its potential to treat Alzheimer's disease and age-related mental decline. Several studies have shown that it does help these conditions, and it's routinely prescribed in places like Germany and France.