Field of Science

Feds arrest dietary supplement makers for fraud

In the largely unregulated world of dietary supplements, it's like the Wild West. Dramatic claims abound, most of them unsupported by evidence, and it's hard to know if any of them can be trusted. Supplement manufacturers claim their products cure cancer, Alzheimer's disease, arthritis, and more. They promise miraculous weight loss results, nebulous "boosting" of your immune system, and anti-aging benefits.

Once in a while, though, they get caught. This week the U.S. cracked down hard on several of the more egregious offenders, announcing indictments against half a dozen supplement makers, including criminal charges against one.

It's about time. Consumers everywhere should applaud these actions and encourage more. Here's what happened.

On Tuesday, November 17, the U.S. Justice Department indicted USPlabs, a major supplement manufacturer whose products include Jack3d and OxyElite Pro. The Justice Department alleged that USPlabs "doctored packaging, labeling, and other paperwork to defraud others about what the product was." Further, the indictment points out that USPlabs claims that their products are made from natural plant extracts, when instead, as one USPlabs defendant put it:
"lol stuff is completely 100% synthetic."
The fraud runs even deeper: according to the Justice Department, after an outbreak of liver injuries associated with OxyElite Pro, in which some consumers needed liver transplants to save their lives,
"they [USPlabs] promised the FDA and the public that they would stop distributing the product at issue. They didn’t. Instead, they undertook a surreptitious, all-hands-on-deck effort to sell as much of the product as they could."
The criminal indictment, which led to the arrest of six USP employees and consultants, is just one of a sweeping set of actions over the past week. The Justice Department also filed six civil cases against other supplement makers for illegally claiming their products could cure diseases. The allegations include:

  • Clifford Woods LLC illegally sold Taheebo Life Tea, Germanium, and Organic Sulfur as treatments for Alzheimer's and cancer.
  • Optimum Health (aka Lehan Enterprises) illegally sold a product called DMSO cream for arthritis and cancer.
  • Regenica Worldwide (aka Vivaceuticals) illegally sell their RegeneSlim as a disease cure, and in addition RegeneSlim contains DMAA, an unsafe food additive under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, but does not declare DMAA as an ingredient.

Just to be clear: none of these violations have yet been proven in court. But to be even more clear: none of these products treat or cure cancer, Alzheimer's, arthritis, or any other disease.

In addition to the DOJ actions, the Federal Trade Commission indicted three more supplement manufacturers for illegal advertising claims (that's the FTC's purview). One indictment, against Chrystal Ewing and her two companies, Health Nutrition Products LLC and Classic Productions LLC, alleged that:
"In ads for W8-B-Gone, CITRI-SLIM 4 and Quick & Easy diet pills, the defendants featured bogus weight-loss experts. Citing fake scientific studies, the defendants also deceptively claimed to have clinical proof that consumers would experience a 'RAPID FAT meltdown diet program' that lets them shed five pounds in four days with one pill, or up to 20 pounds in 16 days with four pills."
Needless to say, none of those products deliver the results they claim.

It's a jungle out there. As the FTC's Jessica Rich said, "People looking for a dietary supplement to improve their health have to wade through a swamp of misleading ads. Be skeptical of ads for supplements that claim to cure diseases, reverse the signs of aging or cause weight loss without diet or exercise.”

It appears that major supplement retailers such as GNC have dropped USPlabs like a hot potato: I couldn't find OxyElite Pro on any of their sites. However, despite the indictments and arrests, USPlabs is still marketing OxyElite Pro on their own site, where they tout it as the "#1 Selling Fat Burner", with a long list of other claims. What about the liver toxicity cited by the Justice Department? The OxyElite website claims:
"OxyELITE Pro shows no side effects in well over 99% of its users. In fact, USPLabs and GNC have stated that there’s been over a billion servings of Jack3d and Oxy ELITE Pro safely taken with no problems!"
The FDA apparently disagrees: in March of this year, they issued a Medication Health Fraud notice that OxyElite Pro contains a hidden drug ingredient, fluoxetine. Fluoxetine is a type of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), used for treating depression and other conditions. According to the FDA,
"SSRIs have been associated with serious side effects including suicidal thinking, abnormal bleeding, and seizures. In patients on other medications for common conditions (aspirin, ibuprofen, or other drugs for depression, anxiety, bipolar illness, blood clots, chemotherapy, heart conditions, and psychosis), ventricular arrhythmia or sudden death can occur."
Caveat emptor: these supplements might contain harmful ingredients. There's only one safe way to take supplements: ask your physician. Unless your doctor specifically recommends one, stay away. You'll feel better and your wallet will benefit too.

Get your wolfsbane here! Cures headaches, only $16 a bottle

Homeopathic drugs contain some pretty strange ingredients. These drugs (or perhaps I should call them potions) come in ordinary-looking packages, apparently designed to look just like real medicine, but they are not. Inside the bottles are concoctions of a wide variety of plant extracts and other substances, almost none of them effective for what’s written on the package.

This week I was browing the headache remedies at CVS, and I encountered a treatment I hadn’t seen before: Nova Headache Complex. It’s an expensive homeopathic remedy, advertised at $16.29 for a 50-ml bottle.

Because homeopaths and their treaments are unregulated, Nova can sell this stuff without having to prove that it has any effect at all on headaches. We can thank Congress for that: ever since 1938, when a homeopathic member of Congress passed the first law protecting them, homeopathic manufacturers have been allowed to forgo any testing to show that their products are safe and effective. And who decides what is homeopathic? The homeopaths themselves.

So: what does Nova’s Headache Complex contain? According to the package, it contains Aconitum Napellus 12X, Bryonia 12X, Cactus Grandiflorus 4X, Chelidonium Majus 6X, Cimicifuga Racemosa 6X, Sanguinaria Canadensis 6X, Spigelis Anthelmia 6X, Thuja Occidentalis 6X. Let's look at just the first of these.

Wolfsbane flowers
Aconitum napellus is a lovely flowering plant, commonly known as monk’s hood or wolfsbane. If that sounds ominous, it should: wolfsbane contains several highly poisonous compounds. It's listed at #3 in the top 10 deadliest plants at Zitbits, which explains:
"When ingested, an intense burning feeling in the limbs and abdomen is immediately felt. In large doses, death can occur in as little as 2-6 hours. Only 20ml of pseudaconitine is needed to kill an adult human. Its name comes the mythology that it was thought to keep away werewolves, hence ‘wolfsbane’."
Wolfsbane has been used as a poison for thousands of years, going back to Roman times. Many young readers will remember it as the main ingredient in a deadly potion in the Harry Potter books. Coincidentally, exactly one year ago, a gardener in England died after accidentally brushing against some wolfsbane flowers.

Yikes! How can they sell this stuff? Well, luckily for consumers, the 12X refers to an extreme dilution, in this instance equal to 10 raised to the 12th power, or 1 part in 1 trillion. The only reason people don’t die when they take Nova's Headache Complex is that there’s essentially no wolfsbane in it.

Fortunately, most homeopathic “drugs” don’t contain any measurable amount of their active ingredients. That’s because homeopaths think that the more you dilute a substance–even to the point where not a single molecule remains–the more potent it is. This laughably foolish notion flies in the face of modern chemistry, biology, and physics, but homeopaths believe it anyway.

What about the other ingredients? All of them are plant extracts, several of them also poisonous (including black cohosh and bloodroot). To avoid extending this discussion for many more pages, suffice it to say that none of these plants have been shown scientifically to cure headaches.

Nova Headache Complex does contain one real ingredient: 20% alcohol. That’s quite a lot, much stronger than beer or wine.'s Yvette d'Entremont demonstrated on YouTube how one can easily get drunk from a few bottles of these homeopathic products. (She used CVS's homeopathic constipation cure, which fortunately has no effect at all on constipation.) This revelation prompted NBC4 in Los Angeles to investigate why CVS was selling alcohol to minors.

Back to our headache "cure": fortunately, over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and acetaminophen work very well for most people. If none of these work for you, drinking an alcohol solution laced with wolfsbane (or, to be more accurate, laced with nothing) won’t help either.

The FDA is currently considering whether or not to modernize its regulation of homeopathic remedies. They’ve held a hearing and solicited public comments. Interesting, the Federal Trade Commission weighed in, arguing that the FDA's current lax rules “may harm consumers and create confusion for advertisers.” I’m skeptical that the FDA will step in any time soon, but one can always hope.

Meanwhile, CVS will sell you wolfsbane for headache pain, but I hope that none of the bottles contain the deadly poisons listed on the label. If nothing else, at least you get a shot of overpriced alcohol.

Putin muzzling science in Russia: a return to the Soviet era?

Vladimir Putin looking skeptically at a scientist.
In a surprising development this past week, Russia has notified all scientists at Moscow State University (MSU) that they must submit their research papers to the state security service before they will be permitted to publish them. Nature News reports that Russia is imposing this policy on universities and research institutes throughout the country.

Perhaps this should not be a surprise. Vladimir Putin has steadily imposed ever greater restrictions on the media, to the point where most Russians are not even aware that Russian-backed fighters shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 last year. This new move towards censorship is just one more step towards imposing Stalin-esque restrictions on all Russians. Requiring scientists to submit their manuscripts to the security services will severely cripple their ability to publish anything even remotely novel or interesting. Why take the chance?

Mikhail Gelfand, a prominent scientist in my own field of bioinformatics, told Nature that:
“This is a return to Soviet times when in order to send a paper to an international journal, we had to get a permission specifying that the result is not new and important and hence may be published abroad.”
Exactly: Putin is returning Russian to the bad old days of the repressive USSR, when the state controlled all media and ordinary citizens were afraid to speak. For now, a few scientists were willing to speak to Nature, but we shouldn't be surprised if even those voices are silenced in the future.

In a bit of absurdist theater, under the new policy Russian scientists who write their papers in English (as is commonly required for publication) must translate them into Russian, because the security service personnel (apparently) cannot read English. I doubt too that the Russian security services have the expertise to understand even a fraction of the papers that they are demanding to see.

Russia has a long history of scientific innovation across all fields of science, particularly mathematics and physics. Under the repressive Soviet regimes of Lenin, Stalin, and their successors, many Russian scientists fled to the West, where they could work without fear of being thrown into a gulag. The U.S. and Europe–and the world–benefitted greatly from their expertise.

Russia’s scientific output has been lagging in recent years, according to an article in Nature earlier this year. There have been a few bright spots, though, such as (in my own field) the recently-created Dobzhansky Center for Genome Bioinformatics at St. Petersburg State University, which has already published some outstanding papers. Now I wonder how long that new center will last.

Ironically, the famous geneticist Dobzhansky, after whom the new St. Petersburg institute is named, left Russia as a young man in 1927 and moved to the U.S., where he went on to do his groundbreaking work in evolutionary biology.

Putin’s obsession with power and control might be an opportunity for the rest of us. Here’s a call to Russian scientists: follow Dobzhansky’s example and come to the U.S. We may have our flaws, but you can publish your work freely, and you can even write a blog criticizing the leaders of your university, or your former university's football policy, or your political leaders.

Football is still corrupting our universities. It needs to go.

(In which I again take on the football-industrial complex, and get myself in trouble with fans.)

It's happening again. The University of Maryland is about to pay millions of dollars to its football coach so they can fire him a year early, and proceed to hire a new football coach and pay him millions of dollars. All this at a time when the university is desperately strapped for cash, after years of hiring freezes, salary freezes, and unpaid furloughs for its employees.

What's truly astonishing is that U. Maryland did exactly the same thing just four years ago, and it has been a complete disaster. Here's how I described the scenario in 2011, when I was still a professor there:

  • Pay $2 million to buy out the old coach, Ralph Friedgen, and hire a new one, Randy Edsall who will presumably boost attendance and revenue.
  • Hire Edsall for $2 million per year, who then produced a losing season (2 wins, 10 losses), leaving games with even lower attendance than before.
  • Because football is still losing money, get rid of 8 other varsity sports.

Yes, they really did eliminate 8 other sports in order to invest more in football. Here's what they cut: men’s cross-country, indoor track, outdoor track, men’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis, women’s acrobatics and tumbling, women’s swimming and diving, and women’s water polo.

None of this produced any tangible benefits, either financial or academic.

Now let's look at what U. Maryland is about to do now, after several embarrassing blowout losses this season:

  • Pay $4.7 million to buy out the current coach, Randy Edsall. That's $2.1 million for the rest of this season and $2.6 million for next year. 
  • Hire a new football coach and pay him at least as much as the old coach.
  • Continue to impose unpaid furloughs and pay freezes on academic staff across the board.
Wow, this investment in football really seems to be working for U. Maryland.

What the heck is the U. Maryland president, Wallace Loh, thinking? 

Loh originally hired Edsall just a month after he (Loh) joined the university. One might attempt to explain this as a rookie error made by a new president. But this time he has no such excuse.

U. Maryland is by no means alone in its misguided emphasis on football. In 2012, the University of Florida announced it was eliminating its Computer Science program while simultaneously increasing the football budget. The ensuing outcry (spurred in part by my Forbes blog) convinced the administration to back down, but at the time they saw no irony in their plan to cut science education and spend more on football. 

Listen, sports fans: football is not the reason we have universities. Universities exist to provide education, no matter what the (sometimes rabid) football boosters may say. Some American universities (hello U. Chicago!) do extremely well without having a team at all. Outside the U.S., universities have no major sports programs at all–the students enjoy sports, as all young people do, but the universities focus on what they do best.

Yes, I know the arguments on the other side. “Football makes a profit,” some claim. To that I would say, so what? Universities could make a profit running a casino too – should they do that?

But just for the sake of argument, let's accept the premise that football is profitable. Great! In that case, we can spin off the teams as private corporations, and let them pay to use the university logos, stadiums, etc. The teams can pay the players, as any professional team must, and the students and alumni can continue to cheer on "their" teams, just as residents of Baltimore cheer for "their" professional, privately owned Ravens team. 

Let's face it: university administrations are simply not equipped to run a major sports and entertainment business, which is what college football has become. The spectable of U. Maryland spending $4.7 million simply to buy out its current football coach, when the university is desperately trying to save money for its core mission, demonstrates how corrupting the influence of football has become.

Even worse is the shameful abuse of the players, who serve as unpaid laborers while their coaches make millions. "We give them a free education," administrators and coaches respond. Yeah, right. College football is a multi-billion dollar industry, in which the athletes at the center of the game are prohibited from taking any money. Just pay them, and they can decide if they want to pay tuition with their own money.

If we make college football private, everyone wins. Universities keep their football revenue, the fans get their team, and the university no longer has to pretend that it's educating its unpaid football players. We could even set up the system so that players were given a proper academic scholarship after their playing days were over, which for most of them is just a few years. And perhaps best of all, the players would earn the paychecks they deserve. 

Otherwise, expect me to write another article in about five years, in which I will describe yet again how the University of Maryland (or some other school) is paying millions of dollars to buy out the contract of their football coach, while the school's academic mission is ignored.

Don't eat dirt

Don't eat dirt. It's bad for you.

This might seem like a head-slappingly obvious piece of advice, but there have been a slew of reports in recent years suggesting just the opposite.  Here are a few headlines:

  • "Eating Dirt: The benefits of being (relatively) filthy" in Scientific American
  • "Eating Dirt: It might be good for you" from the ABC News website
  • "Eating dirt can be good for the belly, researchers find" from Science Daily, summarizing a 2011 anthropological study in the Quarterly Review of Biology
  • "The old and mysterious practice of eating dirt, revealed" at, describing a documentary film, Eat White Dirt, released last year.
And there's even a blogger who claims that dirt is "the missing superfood."

These articles describe a custom in which women, especially pregnant women are advised to eat dirt or clay, which some people claim offers health benefits. The ABC News story quotes a Georgia woman saying about the clay she eats, "The good stuff is real smooth. It's just like a piece of candy."

There's even a name for this practice: geophagy, or "earth eating." The NPR story claims this practice goes back millenia. Of course, ancient humans tended to die before they reached the age of 40, so I'm not sure I want to imitate their dietary practices.

Dirt is not the new superfood. Quite the contrary: dirt is the home of some nasty parasites, including a type of worm call toxocara, which can make you extremely ill. These worms are invisible to the naked eye–you can't see them crawling around–but they can cause devastating disease and even death.

This came to my attention last week in a case report in the New England Journal of Medicine (written by Dr. Steven Feske and colleagues) about a 38-year-old pregnant woman who was admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital with back and neck pain, vomiting, and headache. She was initially treated and released, but 11 days later,
"...she began to hyperventilate and her vision went black from the periphery to the center. The symptoms lasted for approximately 2 minutes and were followed by spots in her visual fields, headache, neck pain that radiated to her arms, nausea, and dizziness."
Mass General ran extensive tests, and her brain MRI showed lesions "suggestive of multiple strokes." Given all her symptoms, her physicians suspected that she was infected by a parasitic worm (a helminth or nematode) caused by eating dirt or clay. The patient was originally from Guatemala, where nematode infections are common, and where dirt-eating during pregnancy is encouraged in some areas. As they explain in the NEJM article:
“According to a tourist brochure from the Christian shrine in Esquipulas, Guatemala, 'In Guatemala, eating clay tablets combines healing, devotional reminders, blessings from Our Lord of Esquipulas, good fortune, and pregnancy nutrition.' ” 
Some of the tests came back positive for Toxocara, a parasite roundworm. Only then did the patient reveal that she had been eating dirt, but not from Guatemala, which she had not visited in several years. She had eaten dirt from a neighbor's yard in Massachusetts.

Fortunately, there is an effective treatment for Toxocara infection, and the patient recovered and delivered a healthy baby.

The roundworms that cause toxocariasis are commonly found in dirt in the U.S. They are transmitted by dogs, who spread them around through their feces. Pretty disgusting, right? A variety of other nasty parasites are transmitted through soil, including other kinds of roundworms, whipworms, and hookworms.

So don't eat dirt. It's not good for you. Really.

Donald Trump shows his anti-vaccine craziness, and Ben Carson's response is worse

Donald Trump used the latest Republican debate as an opportunity to express wildly inaccurate anti-vaccine claims, embracing the thoroughly discredited position that vaccines cause autism. This claim has been exhaustively debunked, by countless scientific studies and by reports from the Institute of Medicine and the CDC. It started with a now-retracted 1998 study by one of the great villains in medicine, Andrew Wakefield, who continues to push his fraudulent views despite having lost his medical license.

Trump's comments were nutty and dangerous, but Ben Carson's response was, in some ways, worse. Carson had the chance to set the record straight, and because of his medical credentials, he could have been effective. He failed.

Trump has been an anti-vaxxer for years, so his comments were not surprising. Science blogger Orac posted a 2007 Trump quote that almost exactly mirrors what he said in the debate.

What was much more surprising, and deeply disappointing, was the response of candidate Ben Carson, who until last year was a pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. (Note that although I too work at Hopkins Medicine, I've never met Dr. Carson.) Carson did point out vaccines don't cause autism, but then he made a series of false claims that come right out of the anti-vax playbook.

When the moderator asked Carson to respond to Trump's anti-vaccine rant, Carson had a golden opportunity to do some real good: he could have corrected the record and pointed out the real harm that comes from anti-vaccination misinformation. Instead, he said things like this:
“Vaccines are very important, certain ones, the ones that would prevent death or crippling. There are others, a multitude of vaccines that don’t fit in that category, and there should be some discretion in those cases.”
Forbes bogger Tara Haelle has already explained the grievous error here: all our vaccines prevent death.  Carson's claim is simply false, and it's shocking that a highly trained physician would make this statement, on a national stage, without knowing the facts. What Carson should have said–but didn't–was this, from the Every Child By Two organization:
"Each and every vaccine added to the list of recommended immunizations will save the lives and/or reduce the number of disabilities of children in the United States. With the introduction of every new vaccine, rates of both disease and deaths have fallen across the country."
Carson then dug himself even deeper into the anti-vaccine camp with this claim:
"But it is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time."
This claim is right out of the anti-vaccine playbook: it was the basis of the "too many, too soon" campaign launched by Jenny McCarthy's Generation Rescue, the country's leading anti-vaccine activist group. In fact, the vaccine schedule is very safe, and misinformation like this trope leads to parents withholding vaccines from their children, which in turn can cause sickness, disability, and death.

Let me show you what Carson could have done. Six years ago, Bill Maher–one of the most left-wing talk show hosts in the media, and an anti-vaxxer himself–was interviewing former Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who is also an M.D. Here's what happened:

Dr. Frist interrupted Maher and said "wait, this is important," and proceeded to school Maher on how vaccines save lives. I wasn't a big fan of Frist, but he did a fantastic job here. Carson, in contrast, just pandered to the audience, and to Trump.

The moderator also asked Rand Paul, the other M.D. among the candidates, to respond to Trump's anti-vax claims. He too repeated the anti-vaccine trope that he "ought to have the right to spread my vaccines out a little bit." This is nonsense as well: Paul does have that right, and no one has ever proposed taking it away. It's bad medicine, though, and as doctor, Paul should know better. He failed as well.

It's far more harmful to the public when a high-profile doctor makes anti-vaccine statements than when a blowhard like Trump makes them. Dr. Ben Carson and Dr. Rand Paul should both know better.

Jellyfish proteins: modern snake oil for brain health

Watching ABC's World News Tonight this week, I saw an impressive-looking ad for a pill that claimed to improve memory and cognition. The ad showed several adults, all looking very happy, presumably because they didn’t forget where they left their keys. In appearance, it looked like many of the drug ads that run on the evening news in the U.S. these days.

The ad described a product called Prevagen, which is sold as a supplement, not a drug. This is a critical distinction: supplements are almost completely unregulated, unlike real drugs. The FDA isn’t allowed to regulate supplements and their claims, thanks to Congress and the 1994 DSHEA law.

I was curious about what this memory pill could be. The Prevagen ad, website and packaging make a number of very strong claims, scientifically speaking. The biggest claim is that Prevagen improves memory*, something pretty much everyone would like. The website also includes the more specific claim that “Prevagen can improve memmory within 90 days.*” The package adds that Prevagen “supports healthy brain function*, [a] sharper mind*, and clearer thinking.*"

How can they make these claims if they aren’t true? Simple: every claim has a little asterisk (*) next to it. If you scroll all the way to the bottom of the Prevagen webpage, you’ll find what that means:
“*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
Behind this blanket escape clause, supplement makers hide all kinds of unsupported claims. Thus Quincy Biosciences–Prevagen's manufacturer–can state that “Prevagen significantly improves learning,” add the asterisk, and voila! the FDA can’t touch them, as long as they don't make a claim to cure a specific disease.

And by the way, they also claim that “Prevagen improves the quality of sleep.*” There’s that asterisk again.

So what is Prevagen? It’s a pill that contains a protein called apoaequorin, which is found in a species of jellyfish that glows in the dark. These jellies produce two proteins, apoaequorin and green fluorescent protein (GFP), that help them fluoresce. It’s an amazing biological system, and the three scientists who discovered GFP were awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

How (you might be wondering) this can be sold as a dietary supplement? After all, we don’t eat apoaequorin, and isn’t a supplement supposed to be related to something we normally eat? It sounds more like a drug. The FDA agrees with me–I’ll get to that below.

Despite Quincy Bioscience’s claims, I see no reason why eating this protein would have any effect at all on brain function. First of all, it’s not even a human protein, so it's unlikely to work in humans. Second, even if it did work in humans, eating it would not deliver it to our brains, because it would be almost certainly be broken down in the stomach. And third, the connection between this protein and memory is complex, so simply having more of it is not likely to improve memory.

Prevagen isn’t cheap, either. If you order direct from the company, a month’s supply of pills will cost you $66 with shipping. There’s even an “extra strength” version, though I cannot see how twice as much of an ineffective pill will be twice as effective. On the other hand, two times zero does equal zero.

I wrote to ask the president of Quincy Bioscience, Mark Underwood, if his company is claiming that Prevagen will provide any benefits to people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. He didn’t answer that question, but he did respond that “our scientific basis for the claims we make related to Prevagen are on pretty solid ground.” He was careful to qualify this first, though, writing that
“Prevagen is intended to assist people with mild memory issues related to aging. Prevagen is not a pharmaceutical, nor is it approved by the FDA for the treatment of any neurodegenerative disease (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, etc.).  We do not wish to confuse mild memory loss related to aging with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia in our advertising.”
I also asked Underwood if he could provide any peer-reviewed studies supporting his company's claims. He sent me several studies, but none of them was peer-reviewed: they include company-sponsored studies that are unpublished, and one published abstract from 2011, in the Journal of Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Abstracts, though, are not peer-reviewed: they are short summaries typically presented in oral form at conferences, and sometimes published (as this one was) in special supplements to journals. This abstract seems to be the basis of the claim on Prevagen’s website that “Prevagen was tested in a large double-blind, placebo-controlled study using computers to assess brain performance. 218 adults over 40 years old participated in the three month study. Prevagen significantly improved learning and word recall.*” (Note the asterisk again.)

Prevagen’s claims should be easy to test. If Prevagen really does improve memory, then it would be relatively cheap to run large, well-controlled studies on randomized subjects, and I’d expect to have seen multiple studies published since 2011. But because Prevagen is being marketed as a supplement, Quincy Bioscience doesn’t have to prove anything. They just have to be careful not to cross the line in their advertising.

I asked Ted Dawson, the Abramson Professor of Neurodegenerative Diseases at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, what he thought of Prevagen’s claims.
“It is hard to evaluate Prevagen as to the best of my knowledge there is no peer-reviewed publication on its use in memory and cognition,” said Dawson. “The study cited on the company’s web site is a small short study, raising concerns about the validity of the claims.” 
Treating dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other age-related brain disorders is truly difficult. If you want to see what real scientists (not supplement maker) are doing to try to stave off or cure dementia, here’s a short video narrated by Dr. Dawson:

Dr. Mark Sager, a scientist at the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute and a Professor at the University of Wisconsin, has been quoted saying that he does not recommend Prevagen “primarily because there’s no evidence that it does any good.” He recommends adopting a Mediterranean diet instead, which does have some scientific evidence to support it.

I’m not the first person to raise questions about Prevagen. In 2012, a class action lawsuit was filed against them in California, in which the plaintiffs argued that the Prevagen didn’t work and that the advertising campaign was false and misleading. Earlier this year, another class action lawsuit against Quincy Bioscience argued that Prevagen’s active ingredient, apoaequorin, "is completely destroyed by the digestive system.” And in 2012, the FDA sent Quincy Bioscience a warning letter (see it here), pointing out that the company was marketing Prevagen as a drug, not a supplement. The FDA stated that:
"Apoaequorin is not a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, herb or other botanical, or dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet ... nor is it a combination of dietary ingredients. Therefore, the synthetically produced apoaequorin used in your Prevagen products is not a dietary ingredient as defined in section 201(ff)(1) of the Act.... Accordingly, your Prevagen products could not be marketed as dietary supplements even if they were intended only to affect the structure or function of the body and not for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease."
Somehow, though, Quincy continues to sell Prevagen as a supplement. Their website claims they are the #1 selling brain health supplement in the U.S. today.

The appeal that Prevagen is making to consumers is a very old one: basically, they want you to think that if a protein is used in your brain, then eating that protein will make your brain healthier (even though apoaequorin is not a human protein). By this argument, I could package up hundreds of different proteins (perhaps thousands–the brain is a complex organ) and sell them as “brain food” This simplistic principle has been used for centuries in folk medicine: it’s the reason why some people think that eating the body parts of bears and tigers will make them more virile. But eating tiger organs doesn’t make you more like a tiger. It's a form of magical thinking, and there's simply no science to support it. In short, it's just wrong.

Human health isn’t that simple. You don’t acquire the properties of the food you eat. Eating chicken won't make you fly, and eating tuna won't make you a fast swimmer. Eating jellyfish proteins (Prevagen's main ingredient) won't improve your memory, nor will it allow you to emit green fluroescent light. There's no magic brain food, or supplement, that will make you smarter. But you can be a tiny bit richer by not spending your money on ineffective supplements.