You must have bubbles for brains

Americans will do anything to improve their minds - even chew `intelligence-enhancing' gum. LUCY JONES tries some
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Bitter at first, it quickly becomes like one of those mystery lumps found in dubious takeaways. Five minutes later, a Starbucks coffee- like kick sets in and sends my blood racing. No, this isn't the latest party drug to be handed around like chocolates on New York's modish Lower East Side (that's Viagra). It's a memory enhancer called "Brain Gum", which promises improved "memory, learning and concentration".

Brain Gum comes as white mint-flavoured chewy tablets in packets adorned with Rodin's "The Thinker". (To order, just call 1-888 "IQ BOOST".) And although the Beverly Hills- based marketers admit that "unfortunately there is no real fountain of youth", they say the gum helps you to remember names and faces, learn information and recall the locations of frequently misplaced objects.

The magical ingredient in this elixir of the mind is a soya bean compound called phosphatidyl serine (known in the brain business as PS). Once we hit age 20, the gum inventors say, our chemical systems begin to decline, causing our membranes to become rigid. PS, they say, acts like a "moisturiser", improving neurotransmitter efficiency between brain cells. Yeah, yeah, you say, who's going to fall for that one? Well, rather a lot of people, actually - Brain Gum sales topped $15m last year.

Which begs the question, does it work? Well sorry to burst anyone's bubble, but after chewing I still lost my keys and forgot which locker I put clothes in at the gym. I gave some to my friends to try (no small gesture - a starter pack costs pounds 40) and it didn't make me popular. One friend complained that it "brought on her migraines"; another blamed the Brain Gum for sleepless nights (although, in fairness, I think those were due to her boyfriend).

Brain Gum notwithstanding, the brain business as a whole is booming in the US, generating more than $10bn a year. Memory improvement is second only to weight loss in the self-improvement industry. The baby boomers are getting old, and they're looking for ways to keep their edge.

Some chemists have entire aisles dedicated to ginseng, gingko biloba (an ancient Chinese medicine made from gingko tree leaves) and other brews for the absent-minded. One brand of "smart pills" contains a staggering 8,330 per cent of the daily recommended allowance of "hydroxycobalamin", whatever that is.

Brain expansion is hugely trendy in the States. "People go for a quick fix," says Josh Reynolds, a Californian brain-testing expert. "They party all night, then exercise and pop a brain pill in the morning." A New Age "oxygen station" in Manhattan peddled organic fruit-flavoured oxygen "cocktails" to feed the memory cells, until Rudolph Giuliani, New York's mayor, closed it down as part of his campaign to "clean up" the city. One company, NeuroCorp, has even opened a chain of "brain gyms". They operate exactly like health clubs, but instead of toning your abs, you work out the grey matter, using visual recall tests and computer exercises. "People now want to get their memories in shape in the same way as they started wanting to get their bodies shaped-up 30 years ago," says Lynn Stern, author of Remember What You're Starting to Forget.

But how can you test whether these treatments are doing any good? The internet has countless free "brain tests" (check out www.brain.com) that will tell you whether that expensive ginseng or gingko biloba pill you just popped was worth the cash, whether these things actually boost your brain power, but perhaps the whole approach is missing the point. Isn't forgetfulness a part of life, sometimes even endearing?

Not any more, it would seem. A good memory is essential in order to remember the ever rising amount of detail in our lives, all the pin numbers and passwords, says Dr Larry Cahill, a neurobiologist at the University of California. "We're getting bombarded by information from all corners, much more than we used to be." And a nimble memory is increasingly viewed as an essential social skill. It's simply not good enough, at New York cocktail party, to refer to the man you shook hands with five minutes ago as "that bloke in the red jumper". Americans are good at remembering names, often repeating them several times.

Corporate America is catching on to the memory craze - a recognised face or name could mean an extra sale - and companies are now sending their employees on memory seminars. "Memory skills are crucial both for business - for networking effectively - and on a personal level, to build trust in social relationships," says Mahan Tavakoli, who runs one such course at Dale Carnegie Training in Washington DC.

Maybe there is a case for more brain awareness. Perhaps we should be honing our grey matter as well as our bodies. I don't know, but I can tell you one thing - if it involves Brain Gum, you can forget it.

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