Wouldn't it be great if you could just pop a pill to improve your memory? Well, if you listen to or read the advertisements for a seemingly endless string of supplements and supplement-fortified beverages and foods, you'd think there really was such a magic bullet. But so far, there really isn't any strong research supporting the use of any supplement to improve memory or overall brain function. There have been some intriguing findings, as we'll discuss here, but the evidence is suggestive, at best. The following are some of the supplements you're likely to hear the most about in terms of enhancing memory power.
The leaves of this tree have been "prescribed" as a memory aid by traditional healers in China for the past 4,000 years. And in Germany today, it's said to be the third most commonly prescribed drug for the treatment of dementia. In the United States, ginkgo has been touted not only as a treatment for Alzheimer's but as a memory enhancer even for people without signs of dementia.
Studies have documented the safety and efficacy of ginkgo in treating patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease, although most experts in the United States agree that the benefits are mild at best and that more research is needed. Few side effects are associated with the use of ginkgo. They include headache, nausea, gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea, dizziness, and allergic reactions. There is also some evidence to suggest that ginkgo can increase the risk of bleeding, so people who take anticoagulants (blood thinners) or have bleed disorders may be better off avoiding ginkgo. At any rate, ginkgo should be considered for use in treating the memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease only after consultation with a physician and only under medical supervision.
In terms of boosting memory ability in healthy people, there is even less scientific research to support such use. Indeed, a study of more than 200 healthy adults over age 60, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, found that taking ginkgo for six weeks did not improve memory. There is still considerable interest in the use of ginkgo for memory enhancement, and perhaps future studies will find some benefit from longer periods of supplementation. But at this point, the evidence is not strong enough to recommend the use of ginkgo for memory improvement in healthy adults.
Coenzyme Q10 (or ubiquinone) is an antioxidant that occurs naturally in the body and is needed for normal cell reactions to occur. Some preliminary research suggests that Coenzyme Q10 may slow down, but not cure, dementia in people with Alzheimer's disease, but additional research is needed before any recommendation can be made for its use in treating this condition. (Little is known about what dosage of coenzyme Q10 is considered safe, and there could be harmful effects in overdose.)
There is currently no good research to support its use for improving memory in healthy people.
Huperzine A is an extract from a club moss (Huperzia serrata) that has been used for centuries in Chinese folk medicine as a memory enhancer. It appears to be able to interfere with the enzyme acetylcholinesterase that breaks down acetylcholine, which is involved in memory and learning. This means more acetylcholine becomes available to stimulate brain cells. Alzheimer's disease is a condition where there's a relative shortage of acetylcholine.
Huperzine A may hold some promise as a potential treatment for Alzheimer's disease, but more studies are required to determine its long-term safety and side-effect profile as well as the extent of any positive effects. Likewise, research has yet to prove that this extract has any ability to improve memory in people who do not have dementia. Until experts know more about this herbal extract, its use is not recommended.
This fat-soluble substance is an essential component of cell membranes. It is found in highest concentrations in brain cells, where it may help preserve or improve some aspects of mental functioning in the elderly, according to some reports. Studies have shown mild benefits from supplementation in patients with mild Alzheimer's disease, who showed improvement on standardized tests of mental functioning.
It has also been suggested that adults age 50 and older, especially those with age-related memory loss, may not synthesize enough PS and may benefit from supplemental PS. Taken orally, PS is rapidly absorbed and readily crosses the blood-brain barrier to reach the brain.
At this time, however, there is not enough evidence of its usefulness or long-term safety to recommend its use.
This natural hormone closely related to cortisone is made in many organs and tissues that produce steroid hormones, including the adrenal glands, liver, skin, and gonads (testicles and ovaries). Until 1981, scientists thought that steroids found in the brain came from elsewhere in the body, but in fact the brain has the capacity to use cholesterol to make pregnenolone and other steroids.
A 1992 study conducted with laboratory mice concluded that giving pregnenolone to aging animals could significantly improve memory function. Certain drugs prescribed for cancer and mental disorders frequently block the synthesis of cholesterol, thereby causing a deficiency of pregnenolone. Basically, however, there is no evidence to suggest that this hormone is helpful in improving memory function in healthy people.
It has been suggested that this substance, a derivative of the periwinkle extract vincamine, may benefit memory by boosting blood flow to the brain and enhancing the brain's use of glucose and oxygen. Vinpocetine was introduced into clinical practice in Europe more than two decades ago for the treatment of cerebrovascular disorders and associated symptoms. Experiments with vinpocetine suggest that it can dilate blood vessels, make red blood cells more pliable, and interfere with clumping of platelets; it may also have antioxidant properties. In one British study, statistically significant cognitive improvements were found. Vinpocetine appears to be helpful in memory disorders caused by poor blood flow to the brain, but it has not been approved for use in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, nor is there sufficient evidence to support its use in healthy people.
On the next page, learn about how head injuries can affect memory.