Impact of a purported nootropic supplementation on measures of mood, stress, and marksmanship performance in U.S. active duty soldiers

Nootropic dietary supplements are growing in popularity, but efficacy remains unclear. In this study, we found that 30 days of Alpha Brain® nootropic supplement consumption did not have any statistically significant effects on measures of marksmanship performance, mood, or stress. Despite following a dosing pattern (3 times daily) and daily amount (1972.5 g) consistent with investigations suggesting potential ergogenic benefit [1, 18] we did not see improvement in the number of targets hit, distance from center of mass, or reaction time during a prone supported marksmanship task, in POMS or resiliency scores, or hair cortisol concentrations in rested, otherwise healthy Soldiers.

Our findings are in contrast with two other research studies examining Alpha Brain® efficacy. Solomon et al. [1] reported a significant improvement in verbal memory in healthy young adults after a 6 weeks supplementation at dose consistent with the current study [1].Another study of healthy young adults observed a benefit of the supplement on Event-Related Potential and Electroencephalograph measure of cognitive function after 8 weeks of supplementation [18].

Thus, longer chronic supplementation may have been needed to elicit change.

An area of weakness in both our study and previous studies is a lack of biochemical evidence to support the absorption of the active ingredients in the product. Future research should involve blood samples verifying Alpha Brian’s ingredient absorption rates. A more difficult or variable performance tasks should also be considered. In this study, we studied marksmanship in the prone supported position, which greatly simplifies the task of aligning and accurately firing the weapon. The participants successfully hit 95% of the targets presented. Therefore, a marksmanship task with more upper gain in performance score might be necessary to detect significant improvements, if they are present.

Future investigations examining the efficacy of Alpha Brain® or a similar supplement should consider examining efficacy under more stressful situations. Marksmanship abilities in a relative stress free setting may be mostly predicated on skill. Previous research has demonstrated that external stress, such as load carriage and cold exposure, have demonstrated negative effects on marksmanship that can be sometimes ameliorated by nutritional interventions [11, 19]. Such is the case with one of Alpha Brain’s active ingredients, tyrosine, which was previously shown to be beneficial in promoting cognitive function immediately after a physiological stress of cold water immersion [11]. Similarly caffeine, which has been comprehensively investigated as a cognitive enhancer, demonstrated a greater benefit in marksmanship performance in a military population when they were sleep deprived such as in a sustained operation [2022].

The military interest in a “Metabolically Optimized Brain” [23] supports the exploration of novel nutritional interventions to cognitively enhance warfighter performance. However, when proposing any form of enhancement within military personnel, ethical concerns [24, 25] should always be weighed and considered. One of the considerations mentioned by Russo concerning the ethical use of pharmacologic fatigue countermeasures is “Have available non-pharmacologic alternatives been fully utilized?” [26] A nutritional nootropic might be such an alternative. Given the rising popularity of nootropic supplements, future research on the potential impact they have on cognitively demanding soldier tasks, such as target discrimination scenarios, should be explored.