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Pills for the Brain

Pop this pill and improve your memory. Swallow that one and reduce your cognitive decline. We see ads for such products all the time and I suspect they will increase as the baby boomers reach senior citizenhood. The most popular brain boosting supplements are fish oil pills and they are also probably the best studied ones. The results are not encouraging.

Pop this pill and improve your memory. Swallow that one and reduce your cognitive decline. We see ads for such products all the time and I suspect they will increase as the baby boomers reach senior citizenhood. The most popular brain boosting supplements are fish oil pills and they are also probably the best studied ones. The results are not encouraging. When all the studies are pooled, we are left with the possibility of a barely significant improvement in recalling lists of words soon after they have been learned, but the effect does not last. Extracts of the ginkgo biloba tree are also popular, and here the prospects are even dimmer. There is no impact on memory, despite claims of increased circulation in the brain. And ginkgo can interfere with the action of anticoagulants and has also been shown to be an animal carcinogen.

B vitamins are also sold with claims of enhancing memory, usually rationalized by their reduction of homocysteine, a chemical in the blood that may affect circulation in the brain. No benefits from B vitamin intake have been demonstrated when it comes to memory or cognitive function except in the case of people who have high homocysteine levels due to a diet that is very low in B vitamins. There is some concern that folic acid, one of the B vitamins, may spur the growth of polyps in the colon at doses greater than 800 micrograms a day. Phosphatidyl serine is a natural component of nerve cell membranes and its promoters argue that a deficiency leads to impaired communication between nerve cells which in turn impairs cognitive function. Sounds reasonable, except that proper controlled trials have come up empty. The same goes for vinpocetine, a compound originally isolated from the lesser periwinkle plant by Hungarian chemist Csaba Szantay in 1975. It is widely used in Europe to treat strokes and memory problems with claims of increased circulation to the brain. It does indeed increase circulation, much like ginkgo, but there is no compelling evidence for memory improvement.

People with failing memory and worried about Alzheimer’s disease are sometimes seduced by advertisements for Huperzine A, extracted from a type of moss. Some studies have shown that it increases levels of acetylcholine in the brain, a chemical that is in short supply in Alzheimer’s. But despite increasing acetylcholine, aside from a few questionable studies in China, there is no evidence that it improves memory. Unfortunately when it comes to memory pills, they are best forgotten. There is, however, hope that a nasal spray containing insulin can increase the absorption of glucose into brain cells and improve cognitive function. But in the meantime, the best bet to maintain good brain function is to monitor blood glucose and blood pressure, eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in simple carbs and saturated fat. And don’t forget that physical exercise also exercises your brain.

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