Skepticism

Mayim Bialik Peddles Brain-Boosting Snake Oil

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Back in 2019, I talked about nootropics — substances that are thought to maybe improve brain function. They’re often pushed by people like Joe Rogan, who is part owner of a company that sells pills to gullible young men promising to boost their brains with little to no scientific research to back them up. In that video, I went over the various studies that found no benefit to these pills, with the biggest being a comprehensive study from the Global Council on Brain Health that found no supplements they could endorse for brain health, writing “Very few supplements have been carefully studied for their effect on brain health. For the handful that have been researched, several well-designed studies of supplements for brain health found no benefit in people with normal nutrient levels. It’s unclear whether people with nutritional deficiencies can benefit their brains by taking a supplement, because the research is inconclusive.”

There was also an earlier Cochrane review covering 28 studies with more than 83,000 participants that “did not find evidence that any vitamin or mineral supplementation strategy for cognitively healthy adults in mid or late life has a meaningful effect on cognitive decline or dementia.”

Well. It’s been two years and weirdly my video failed to capsize the nootropic snake oil industry, and today we’re going to talk about a newly popular brand trying to sell a coffee-based supplement using a very prominent spokesperson.

Mayim Bialik first gained fame on the extremely ‘90s show Blossom, but her fame exploded back in 2010 when she joined the cast of the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory, aka the sitcom that provides my parents with the only touchstone back to my life as a science communicator, and for that I will always be thankful despite the slight annoyance of constantly hearing how something me or my partner say is “so Sheldon.” Bazinga.

It was around that time, I think, I first became aware that Bialik had actually spent the time in between Blossom and Big Bang actually pursuing and achieving a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA. She also calls herself a feminist and is a vegan. Holy shit, I thought, we have so many values in common! Science! Women’s rights! Animal rights! We’re going to be BEST FRIENDS one day I bet. Nothing else I learn about her can possibly ruin this warm feeling of respect and admiration.

Oops!

So, it turns out that just prior to joining the Big Bang Theory, Bialik wrote a book about parenting, in which she revealed that she does things like eat her own placenta, which is a stupid pseudoscientific (and sometimes just cultural) practice with no known benefits. Fine, whatever, that’s not a huge deal, but she also revealed (and backed up in interviews) that they are a “non-vaccinating family,” which is a shock considering her science background but not a shock when you realize her pediatrician is the same one Jenny McCarthy used, a man who openly and falsely says that vaccines cause autism and other developmental delays (they do not).

Ten years later, in October of last year, Bialik finally took to YouTube to declare that she was not in fact anti-vaccine, and that she and her kids would be getting their first flu shots along with the COVID vaccine when it was available. And then she said a bunch of anti-vax shit:

“Now, do I think we give way too many vaccines in this country compared to when I was a vaccinated child? Yes. Do I think most people don’t even know what Hepatitis B is but vaccinate their newborns for it anyway because they’re simply told to? Yes. Do I think there’s a tremendous profit that is made from vaccines and specifically from making sure that kids show up in school? Yes.”

Ah yes, of course, the famous “making sure kids get educated” industry. FAMOUSLY how we’ve created most of our billionaires here in America. Public schools. Easy money.

So yeah this is all just the normal fallback position of the typical anti-vaxxer who realizes they have a deeply illogical and unpopular belief — “okay fine, vaccines don’t cause autism maybe but there are just TOO MANY compared to when I was a kid and therefore that must be bad somehow.”

When Bialik was born, there were three recommended vaccines: DTP (diptheria, tetanus, and pertussis, which together killed tens of thousands of American children every year before the vaccine was developed), Polio (which injured more than 50,000 children each year before the vaccine was developed), and MMR, aka measles (50,000 cases per year), mumps (152,000 cases per year), and rubella (which in 1964-65 infected about 12.5 million people, resulting in 11,000 women losing their pregnancies, 2,100 newborns dying, and 20,000 babies being born with congenital rubella syndrome.)

Nine more vaccines have been added since Bialik was born, and all of them are literally saving lives. Yes, including Hepatitis B, which was the first anti-cancer vaccine. I don’t care if Bialik doesn’t know what Hep B is — ignorance won’t protect her or her children from it. Hep B is the most common serious liver infection in the world, affecting 1 in 3 people and killing a million people each year. There are usually no symptoms as it quietly destroys your liver, leading to cancer and cirrhossis, and due to the lack of symptoms it’s very easy for a person to unknowingly pass it on to another person via unprotected sex. The vaccine is extremely safe and extremely effective.

So yeah, Mayim, sorry but you’re still anti-vaccine if you’re shitting on a vaccine that can save millions of lives with the most common side effect being “soreness at injection site.”

So I guess it’s no surprise that now Bialik is offering her specific science-based fame to outright quackery in the form of Neuriva, a magic pill that claims to improve your brain. Gary L. Wenk, a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at Ohio State University, wrote last year that Neuriva is snake oil, promising that their coffee extract will increase your levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and thus make you smarter. Studies on rats found that sometimes rats with higher levels of BDNF in their brains run through mazes faster, and coffee can raise BDNF in a human’s blood. Did you detect the subtle problems there? Let me make it clear: the studies were on rats, not humans; not all the rats actually did better with higher BDNF levels in their brains; coffee raises BDNF levels in the BLOOD, not the brain; and FYI, BDNF cannot pass into the brain from your blood. So.Yeah.

I ended my previous nootropic video with this:

“Meanwhile, there are nootropics that actually are scientifically proven to work. Caffeine, for example. Caffeine has loads of positive side effects, including giving your brain a boost so long as you’re taking more than your body is accustomed to. In fact, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that caffeine was better at improving cognitive abilities than CAF+, a mix of three “nootropics” that were being sold mixed with caffeine.”

And that holds true! The regular caffeine you get in a $2 cup of coffee from Dunkies can give you a cognitive boost, but there’s simply no evidence that mixing it with other nootropics and selling it as an expensive pill does much of anything at all.

Sadly I don’t expect this video to get in the way of Neuriva’s sales. For a start, they’re the same company that made millions off of Airborne, the bullshit “immune system booster” that tricked a whole lot of people into taking placebos every winter. Of course, they had to give $23.3 million of that profit back in a class action settlement and then another $30 million to the FTC due to their completely ridiculous unsubstantiated health claims, but hey, that’s a drop in the bucket. Clearly these guys know how to make a buck and not sweat a hundred million dollars or so going to the legal fund every now and again.
And in Bialik, they found the absolute perfect snake oil salesperson: a likable, funny woman who spent ten years playing a scientist on one of the most watched sitcoms of its era, who ACTUALLY HAS A DEGREE IN NEUROSCIENCE but is too stupid, too credulous, or too greedy to say that this magic brain pill is bullshit. It’s the perfect storm. I look forward to my parents spending their limited retirement funds buying snake oil from a celebrity they’ve come to trust. Thanks Mayim, you’ve done it again.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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4 Comments

  1. Re vaccines now compared to 40 years ago: Am I right in also thinking that there are less total antigens in the current schedule than in the schedule from 40 years ago?

  2. I don’t think I’m all that old. But I don’t’ think I know anyone else who had had measles, AND mumps, AND rubella, AND chickenpox, AND scarlet fever, AND childhood pneumonia.

    Having a pediatrician parent while living in a 3rd world city (Baltimore) may have a lot to do with that.

  3. I’m gonna go with greedy. She’s clearly not dumb, and I doubt she’s ignorant of the pseudoscience inherent to most nootropics. Especially since she’s hedging with her “I love the science behind Neuriva” approach, which lets her keep her distance from actually legitimizing Neuriva itself, instead preferring to endorse the real science present in animal / in vitro studies, while not actually claiming definitively that Neuriva does anything at all for humans. Because it doesn’t.

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