Here’s what the latest research shows about five of the market’s fastest-growing cognitive performance ingredients.
Brain health supplements have rapidly gained popularity among the academic and professional communities alike, with everyone on the lookout for new ingredients that will improve focus, boost critical thinking skills, shorten reaction time, and extend mental endurance. As the world of work continues to shift toward mental rather than physical tasks, cognitive performance in school and the workplace will only become more critical to the everyday lives of mainstream consumers.
Supplement manufacturers and brands looking to capitalize on emerging markets will want to watch the cognitive performance space closely in the coming years as more research validates the benefits of cognitive performance ingredients and consumer interest snowballs. If past is prelude and general nutritional supplement trends hold true, then the growth of the cognitive health market will lead consumers to demand more research to back up the claims of brands and manufacturers. Here’s what the latest research shows about five of the market’s fastest-growing cognitive performance ingredients.
Spearmint Extract Improves Cognitive Performance in Elite Military Forces
Spearmint extract has undergone several studies for its cognitive performance properties in the last few years. Most recently, researchers in Israel working under the supervision of Israel Defense Forces Medical Corp Cardiothoracic Surgeon Commander Col. Ishay Ostfeld, MD, studied the effects of Kemin’s (Des Moines, IA) branded spearmint extract supplement Neumentix on 10 special operations counterterrorism specialists during a live military tactical operation.
The randomized, double-blind, parallel-design clinical trial1 followed these specialists during an operation after a 24-hour period of sleep deprivation. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either 900 mg/day of Neumentix (n=5) or a matching placebo (n=5) for 17 days. All participants underwent tests of physical, cognitive, and executive functioning before Neumentix supplementation and one hour after the conclusion of the military operation.
Five out of five subjects in the experimental condition correctly identified the target within one hour of the operation’s conclusion, compared to only three out of five subjects in the control condition. While the study authors caution that these results are not conclusive evidence that spearmint extract is an effective cognitive supplement, and the small sample size limits the generalizability of the findings, Kim Colletti, Kemin’s global product manager, brain health platform, says that the trial is noteworthy nonetheless: “This study was a well-designed clinical trial, and while the small sample size means the findings are mostly suggestive, this was a one-of-a-kind experimental situation that we believe adds to the body of evidence for Neumentix. [The study also found that] Neumentix may improve subjective feelings of energy and alertness when stressed.”
Low Magnesium Intake Correlated with Alzheimer’s Disease, Memory Disruptions
An oft-overlooked mineral, magnesium appears to have a critical function in both fueling cognitive processes and protecting the brain from age-related decline. One literature review2 found that higher consumption of magnesium oxide was correlated with lower reported incidences of dementia, while an earlier systematic review found that patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease had significantly lower concentrations of magnesium in their cerebrospinal fluid than healthy adults.3
Stephen Ashmead, senior fellow, mineral chelates, at Balchem (New Hampton, NY), says that the role of magnesium in the brain is critical yet poorly understood. Magnesium is known to be involved in memory, he says, as well as energy production.
“The brain represents about 2% of total body weight in an average human, yet it consumes 20% of the total energy the body produces,” Ashmead says. “We know that magnesium is critical to the production of energy in the body. It bonds to ATP to create the biologically active form of ATP (Mg-ATP), and it is essential to the activity of many of the enzymes in the energy production cycle. But magnesium may also have other roles in the brain, and we don’t yet fully understand how magnesium works, outside of energy production, but we do have indications that it may play a significant role.”
Memory and energy production are critical functions involved in thought itself, meaning magnesium may well be involved in more cognitive processes than previously thought. Further research is needed to determine which other areas of cognition involve magnesium and the specific role magnesium plays in said processes.
Citicoline Gains Popularity in E-Sports
The e-sports industry has only continued to grow in recent years, with major competitions taking place in countries all around the world. The global e-sports market is estimated to be worth over $906 million per year4, according to a market report by NewZoo. With major gaming events around the world attracting highly competitive professional gamers who compete for millions in prize money, cognitive health supplements are already in high demand among gamers.
It should come as no surprise that sports and e-sports players are going to unconventional means in order to secure even the slightest edge. Elyse Lovett, senior marketing manager for Kyowa Hakko USA (New York City, NY), says that the sports industry in general and e-sports in particular are both fueling interest in citicoline.
“Sports nutrition has been added to the cognitive health category for ingredient effects like focus, attention, and mental energy,” Lovett says. “But even more recently, we’re seeing a boom in interest in the e-sports category. The professional gaming community, a multibillion-dollar industry, is starting to recognize the benefits of cognitive health ingredients, especially those that could improve their game. Gamers are looking at products that boost focus and mental energy.”
One such gaming-specific product is Liquid Luck (Vista, CA), a finished-product cognitive health supplement for gamers that contains Kyowa Hakko’s Cognizin-brand citicoline in addition to ashwagandha, antioxidants, and a branded Astragalus membranaceus/Panax notoginseng blend called AstraGin from NuLiv Science (Brea, CA).
Kyowa Hakko recently exhibited its branded Cognizin supplement in March at the South by Southwest (SxSW) Gaming Expo in Austin, TX.5 The SxSW Gaming Expo, now in its 13th year, attracts tens of thousands of attendees every year and features multiple tournaments involving PC, arcade, console, and tabletop games. SxSW tournaments also tend to offer significant cash rewards to winning players, including a $100,000 prize pool for players of the Halo game series.6 With such large sums of prize money up for grabs, even the slightest mental edge could result in a very substantial payday, making cognitive health supplements a wise investment for professional gamers.
PQQ Improves Spatial Awareness and Promotes Neuronal Health
Cognitive health supplements find easy adoption among biohackers, but more conservative or traditional consumers who are a little more cautious and skeptical may not be as likely to try new ingredients-unless that ingredient is PQQ. Even the hardest-to-reach consumer is familiar with vitamins, and that’s where PQQ may boast an appeal that other cognitive health supplements don’t have.
“PQQ is the first new vitamin discovered since 1948,” says Dan Lifton, president of Maypro Ventures (Purchase, NY). “It was found to exist in human tissues and bodily fluids in 1992, and in 2003, PQQ was shown to be an essential co-factor in important enzyme-catalyzed reduction-oxidation reactions.”
Recent research is indicating that PQQ plays an important role in preventing-or even reversing-age-related cognitive decline. Other studies have shown that PQQ improves brain functions like memory, attention, information processing, and spatial awareness.
One double-blind, placebo-controlled parallel-group study7 followed 71 healthy adults between the ages of 45 and 65 who did not show signs of dementia. Participants were randomly assigned to receive a food supplement containing 20 mg of PQQ, 20 mg of PQQ plus 300 mg of CoQ10, or a placebo, once daily for 12 weeks. Participants were assessed using word memorization tests, recall tests, mental stress tests, measures of oxidative stress, the Stroop test, and the CogHealth test at baseline, week 4, week 8, and week 12.
The study authors found that while both the PQQ and PQQ/CoQ10 groups performed significantly better on word memorization and recall tasks relative to the placebo group, only the PQQ/CoQ10 group saw a statistically significant improvement on Stroop test scores. Both the PQQ and PQQ/CoQ10 groups performed better on the CogHealth test than the placebo group; however, the PQQ/CoQ10 group saw a more significant improvement on certain components of the CogHealth test that the PQQ group did not see.
Materials provided to Nutritional Outlook by Mitsubishi Gas Chemical (Tokyo, Japan), supplier of the BioPQQ ingredient, explain that PQQ activates mitochondrial biogenesis and boosts Nerve Growth Factor, thereby increasing the amount of energy in brain mitochondria and promoting neuronal development and health. Mitsubishi Gas Chemical notes that PQQ’s functional benefits include improved short-term memory, improved sleep, reduced stress levels, and increased word recall.
Omega-3s Improve Brain Function in Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment
Omega-3 fatty acids have long been known to have beneficial effects on brain health. But now, advanced research methods are even further validating the body of research around omega-3s and creating additional context around their effects on the brain. Bill Harris, PhD, president of OmegaQuant (Sioux Falls, SD), an omega-3 test kit company, says that recent studies on omega-3 fatty acids have found that these compounds may have gender-dependent effects.
Harris references a six-month double-blind randomized controlled trial8 involving 86 Chinese men and women over 60 years of age who suffered from mild cognitive impairment but who were otherwise healthy. Participants received either four 1-g soft-gelatine omega-3 capsules per day for nine days (n=44) or a placebo made from olive oil (n=42). Participants were assessed at baseline and after six months on the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Basic Cognitive Aptitude Test (BCAT), which measured perceptual speed, mental arithmetic efficiency, space imagery efficiency, working memory, and recognition memory. Participants also had blood samples taken at baseline and after six months.
The study found that intake of omega-3 fatty acids resulted in a statistically significant improvement on the BCAT test (p < 0.0001), with improvements in perceptual speed, working memory, and spatial imagery efficiency after six months (p <0.05). The study authors note, however, that there was no difference between groups on scores of mental arithmetic efficiency and recognition memory.
Says Harris: “The study authors found significant benefits on certain components of a battery of cognitive tests. But some benefits were only seen in women, and others were only seen in men, indicating a gendered effect.”
Cognitive Health Concerns on the Rise
Ongoing research into a variety of cognitive health supplements has shown clear benefits for focus, memory, alertness, and spatial awareness. Consumer demand for such supplements is only going to grow over time. As the nature of work continues to transition toward knowledge-based industries, and as large numbers of Americans start to enter their retirement years, expect consumers of all ages to turn to cognitive health supplements that are backed by well-designed studies.
Boosting the Brain through Relaxation
Research is now showing that stress is very literally making consumers less intelligent. One community-based study9 of 467 African-American senior citizens with a mean age of 73 assessed the impact of stress on cognitive function. Higher perceived stress was correlated with faster declines in global cognition, particularly visuospatial reasoning skills and episodic memory.
In layman’s terms: Stress makes people dumber. As busy professionals look for a leg up in the workplace, expect relaxation and focus-oriented ingredients like ashwagandha to gain popularity in the cognitive health market.
FDA Cracking Down on Outlaw Cognitive Health Products
As consumer interest in cognitive health supplements continues to grow, the market is ripe for abuse by unethical individuals who promote and sell illegal products. Most recently, in February 2019, the FDA sent formal warnings to 17 companies who were illegally selling unapproved drugs as dietary supplements that the companies illegally claimed could treat Alzheimer’s disease.10
Major Brands Double Down on Neuro-Nutrition
On March 6, 2019, Trident Brands (Brookfield, WI) and CVS Health (Woonsocket, RI) announced a partnership that will see Trident’s branded Brain Armor neuro-nutrition supplement stocked in CVS locations all around the United States. While Trident has historically positioned Brain Armor as a sports nutrition supplement, the brand is now expanding its Brain Armor line of products to cater to mainstream consumers at multiple stages of life.11 This partnership between a major consumer brand and a national pharmacy chain indicate that these large players are expecting to see extensive growth in the cognitive health market in the near future.