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Get Smart? Brain brews trickle into area

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Amy Kushner's brain on drugs did not resemble an egg sizzling in a greasy frying pan, but coffee, rich and full-bodied, percolating in a pot.

During the eight months she drank, sniffed and swallowed substances with names like "Memory Fuel," she says she had more energy to teach aerobics, more creativity for her advertising job, more pleasure during sex.

"I had this power pack no one else had," the 25-year-old Baltimorean says. "It was like the Batman cape you always wanted."

But Ms. Kushner wasn't on hallucinogens or alcohol. The drugs and beverages she took are supposed to make you smarter.

Smart drugs. If that sounds like an oxymoron, not to worry. Many doctors, and regulators at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), say ingesting intelligence is about as easy as finding the fountain of youth. But smart drugs and drinks -- which are actually combinations of amino acids, vitamins, nutrients and prescription medications -- have become the preferred pick-me-up for an estimated 100,000 people nationwide.

Smart drinks, which are sold at health food stores and nightclubs, are usually concoctions of B vitamins, Chinese herbs like ginkgo biloba and amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Mixed with fruit juices, these gritty-tasting, non-alcoholic cocktails go by snappy names like Wow, Energy Elicksure and Tang with a Bang.

More serious -- and of greater concern to the medical community -- are the prescription drugs the IQ-eager have bought from overseas through the mail. These include Phenytoin (Dilantin), which is commonly used for epileptics; Hydergine, sometimes given to Alzheimer's patients; and Vasopressin, a nasal spray for diabetics. Among the possible side effects are abdominal cramps, headaches and nausea.

Dangerous or not, a diverse crowd is giving the drugs a try -- from senior citizens lamenting short-term memory loss to nightclub kids eager to keep up their late-night lifestyle. By, say, sipping sweet-tasting Rise and Shine laced with Memory Fuel, or inhaling a hormone derivative called Vasopressin, smart druggies hope to score better on exams, play a better game of bridge or simply remember where they left their car keys.

But are they swallowing false hope?

"It's really premature to think any drug or vitamin or nutritional supplement is going to make anyone any smarter. There is no data to support that," says Dr. James K. Cooper, a research director at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda.

Although some drugs and nutrients have been found to improve memory in animals, no such research has been successful with humans, says Dr. James L. McGaugh, director of the Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine.

And in an attempt to improve their minds, smart drug users may be doing themselves harm. What's most troubling to doctors is watching healthy people down drugs intended to treat serious diseases in the hopes of smartening up. In the process, these pharmaceuticals can cause hypertension, nasal congestion and weakness. Even high doses of vitamins, doctors caution, can cause side effects.

"I put this in the fad diet category," Dr. McGaugh says.

Such concerns have put the FDA on alert. In January, the agency began banning the import of prescription drugs from six companies outside the United States, some of which supplied smart drugs. So far, however, it has received no formal complaints about smart drugs, says Mike Shaffer, an FDA spokesman.

The smart drug movement began in California as many as 13 years ago but didn't have a dramatic impact until the 1990 publication of "Smart Drug & Nutrients," by science writer John Morgenthaler and Dr. Ward Dean (B&J; Publications, $12.95), a guide to more than 30 substances they say can jump-start your mind.

But despite their popularity on the West Coast, cognition enhancers have only recently surfaced in Baltimore -- and with mixed results.

If the smart drinks served for the past two months at Orbit, a party at Paradox nightclub, are any indication, Baltimoreans are skeptical about these "brain cocktails."

Of the 1,200 people who attend Orbit biweekly on Thursdays, only 100 try the drinks, says Tony Japzon, a partner at Orbit. He questions whether they really have any effect.

"I think they're probably hype," he says.

But Nature's Gateway, a health food store and cafe in Timonium, sees potential in "think drinks." Next week it's introducing the Contemplative, a mix of ginkgo biloba, ginseng and other nutrients in a base of fat-free French vanilla yogurt and grape or strawberry juice.

Co-owner Kathy Thingelstad decided to market the $3.95 smart shake after noticing customers buying amino acid supplements before an exam or bridge game.

Daya Khalsa, owner of the Golden Temple health food store and cafe in Baltimore, attributes the popularity of the "brain-boosting formulas" he sells to stress.

"People are under so much more pressure. They need more brain activity. They are looking for something to help them be sharper, clearer," he says.

As a junior producer at W. B. Doner advertising during the day and an aerobics instructor at night, Amy Kushner needed something to keep her going from 7 a.m. until after 11 p.m. Thanks to smart drugs, she says she was able to skip meals, sleep less and perform better.

For eight months, she gulped down a smart drink for breakfast. At 5 p.m., she recharged with an energy supplement. She also tried several prescription drugs -- including Vasopressin -- which she ordered through the mail.

"My mental processes seemed to have more life," she says of the experience. "My dreams were vivid, colorful and cartoon-like. I was able to complete thoughts a lot quicker. I didn't stop in the middle of a sentence and forget what I was saying. I felt like I was on top of my game."

That was until she started developing side effects. She initially ignored the indigestion but when that was followed by upset stomachs, cramps and constipation she decided to quit her $35-a-month experiment.

"I basically stopped taking them because I have a heart murmur. I didn't want to run the risk of hurting myself," she says.

She also faced a nagging question: "I kept asking myself, 'Am I tricking myself . . . or is there really some power to this?' "

Her friend Matt Lemp, who also tried smart drugs, faced the same question. He took them for 10 months and experienced nothing but a few wild dreams and jolts of energy.

"A cup of coffee has the same effect at a fraction of the cost," says Mr. Lemp, who spent $250 on the drugs.

Like Ms. Kushner, he faced no withdrawal symptoms. The venture did, however, make a cynic out of him. "If smart drugs are only as effective as they were for me, I don't think they'll go anywhere," he says.

That's exactly the kind of talk Dr. McGaugh likes to hear.

"When in doubt -- and this is a case where there is serious doubt -- save your money and don't do anything foolish," he says.

How then would he recommend people get smart?

"Study harder," he says. "It's easy and it's cheaper."

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