Alpha Brain by Onnit is one of the most popular multi-ingredient nootropics out there. It contains a thorough but not overly complicated blend of some effective brain-boosting ingredients which are, for the most part, effectively dosed.
Alpha GPC is widely considered the most bioavailable Choline source, and is often supplemented to preserve/enhance cognitive function. Like all cholinergic compounds, Alpha GPC’s mechanism of action is via increasing Acetylcholine levels in the brain. Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter primary associated with learning, memory formation, as well as certain aspects of concentration and focus (though Noradrenaline and Dopamine play strong roles as well). Alpha GPC has been shown to increase Acetylcholine levels in rat brains with oral supplementation and, given the high oral absorption rate (compared to other Choline sources), this effect likely translates into humans as well.
Alpha Brain contains 100mg of Alpha GPC per serving which, despite being less than optimal, may convey some noticeable cognitive benefits, especially in combination with Huperzine A (discussed below).
Huperzia Serrata is generally standardized for the active component, Huperzine-A, which acts as a potent Acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. Acetylcholinesterase is the enzyme primarily responsible for the degradation of Acetylcholine (discussed above), so inhibition of this enzyme indirectly increases levels of Acetylcholine.
A 2002 study, published in the “European Journal of Pharmacology”, found that Huperzine-A had a similar potency to reference drugs, tacrine, donepezil, and physostigmine.
Combined with the above-mentioned Alpha GPC, Huperzine-A may very well increase Acetylcholine levels in the brain. Alpha Brain contains 40mg of Huperzia Serrata standardized to .5% Huperzine-A, meaning Alpha Brain contains 200mcg of Huperzine-A per serving, a very effective dose.
Vinpocetine is an alkaloid which is synthesized from Vincamine, found in Periwinkle. Periwinkle has a relatively well-documented history of use in traditional medicine as a migraine treatment and more recently, a cognitive enhancer (nootropic).
Vinpocetine’s potential for vasodilation has been known for quite some time, with a 1980 study from the “British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology” noting a roughly 7% increase in cerebral blood flow following infusions of Vinpocetine in healthy human subjects and a subsequent increase in oxygenation (due to increased blood flow).
A 1985 study, published in the “European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology”, replicated these findings and noted a reduction in reaction time (increased reaction speed) in healthy human subjects taking 40mg Vinpocetine daily. More recent studies support these findings but have combined Vinpocetine with other nutrients, so the results are were not as conclusive.
Alpha Brain contains 5mg of Vinpocetine per serving, not exactly in-line with the research, but perhaps marginally effective.
AC-11 (CAT’S CLAW):
AC-11 is a patented form of Uncaria Tomentosa extract, also known as Cat’s Claw. Onnit touts the ability of AC-11 to preserve the integrity of intracellular DNA in the presence of physical stressors (such as exercise). Indeed, AC-11 has been demonstrated to protect DNA from damaging stimuli, but it’s not necessarily clear how this relates to cognitive enhancement. Furthermore, the 300mg dose of AC-11 present in the Alpha Brain formula may not be enough to make a meaningful difference anyway. So, its inclusion in the Alpha Brain formula certainly doesn’t hurt, it probably doesn’t make much of a difference either.
Phosphatidylserine is a component of cell membranes which is found in particularly high concentrations in the brain. A 2007 study, published in the “Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition”, noted increased accuracy in golfers given 200mg Phosphatidylserine for 42 days which was alleged to be the result of reduced stress. The same dose was shown to reduce stress in a later (2008) study from “Nutritional Neuroscience” in otherwise healthy individuals.
Phosphatidylserine has also been shown, in several studies, to positively influence various parameters of cognitive performance, in healthy (and non-healthy) human subjects. Efficacy has been demonstrated using doses of 100-300mg daily though some studies have used as much as 600mg daily.
Alpha Brain contains 50mg of Phosphatidylserine (derived from Soy), which is less than the 100mg minimum used in most studies.
BACOPA (50% BACOSIDES):
Bacopa is an herb (and herbal supplement) with a well-documented history of use as a cognitive enhancement agent (nootropic). The primary active components responsible for the herbs effects on various aspects of cognitive function are known as Bacosides, and the particular form of Bacopa that Onnit uses for Alpha Brain is standardized to 50%.
A 2011 study, published in the “Journal of Ethnopharmacology” noted a roughly 110% increase in Acetylcholine levels of rats treated with Bacopa compared to placebo. These findings were consistent with those of an earlier (2002) study from “Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior” in which Bacopa was shown to inhibit Acetylcholinesterase (similar to Huperzine-A) in the brains of rats.
A 2013 study from “Phytotherapy Research” found that Bacopa was able to increase cerebral blood flow in rats without effecting blood pressure, and this effect was alleged to be the result of increased Endothelial Nitric Oxide.
The general consensus recommendation for Bacopa is about 150mg Bacosides, but unfortunately, Alpha Brain contains just 50mg per serving.
Pterostilbene is a derivative of the popular anti-oxidant compound, Resveratrol. Though it has a relatively wide variety of potential health implications, Onnit is primarily concerned the preliminary findings that indicate it may be a cognitive enhancement agent. A 2008 study, published in the “Journal of agricultural and food chemistry”, found that aged rats fed a diet containing Pterostilbene experienced an improvement in cognitive function over a period of 12 weeks, which correlated with the accumulation of Pterostilbene in the brain. Clearly, more studies are needed, preferably in humans, as there really isn’t sufficient evidence yet to conclude that Pterostilbene is an effective nootropic in humans.
Tyrosine is a non-essential amino acid which serves as a precursor to Dopamine and Norepinephrine (Catecholamines). Because of this relationship, it is commonly alleged (mostly by supplement companies) that Tyrosine can increase levels of these neurotransmitters, which would ultimately convey some performance enhancement benefits. However, supplemental Tyrosine has failed to produce any noticeable performance enhancement benefit in multiple studies.
While Tyrosine may not increase workout performance directly, it has been shown to preserve cognitive function in the presence of an acute stressor, such as noise, cold exposure, and potentially, exercise. This is because Tyrosine, upon ingestion, forms a pool which is then drawn from to create more Dopamine and Norepinephrine when depletion occurs. To put it simply, Tyrosine will not increase Dopamine and Noradrenaline, but can help ensure optimal levels are maintained during/after exercise.
Alpha Brain contains 300mg of Tyrosine which may help to preserve cognitive function, but will not necessarily enhance it.
Theanine is a non-dietary amino acid found almost exclusively in Green Tea, where it is believed to be the compound responsible for inducing calmness, despite the presence of Caffeine. Theanine has been studied in isolation fairly extensively and has demonstrated the ability to bring about a state of “calm alertness”, inducing relaxation while also improving aspects of cognitive function.
A 2012 study from “Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology”, noted a reduction in biomarkers of stress in rats given an oral dose of Theanine and subjected to an acute stressor. These findings were replicated in a later (2013) study in which Theanine administration was also able to prevent stress-induced memory impairment (in rats).
A 2003 study, published in the “Korean Journal of Nutrition”, found that Theanine supplementation was able to induce alpha brain wave release, resulting in a state of alert relaxation.
A 2007 study, published in “Biological Psychology”, investigating the effects of Theanine on physiological measures of stress noted that 200mg prevented heart rate increase and perception of stress in healthy humans subjected to an acute mental stressor.
A 2011 study from the “Jouranl of Functional Foods” found that Theanine supplementation reduces various physiological indications of anxiety and improved reaction time in high anxiety individuals.
Alpha Brain contains 200mg of Theanine per serving, a clinically effective dose.
Oat Straw is alleged to reduce stress, though there is no clinical evidence to support this claim, just anecdotal evidence. For now, we’d consider Oat Straw a speculative addition to the Alpha Brain formula, not a key ingredient.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Alpha Brain contains a wide array of alleged nootropic compounds, some of which have shown clear efficacy and some of which should still be considered speculative. From a dosing standpoint, the formula is split, with some ingredients, such as Theanine and Huperzine-A, being clinically dosed, and other ingredients being under-dosed. While Alpha Brain is certainly not the most advanced/effective nootropic formula we’ve come across, taking it on a regular basis for an extended period of time may enhance cognitive function. We’d actually recommend taking 2 servings daily (to achieve effective doses of key ingredients), but at about 80 cents per serving, that may be an expensive option.
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