Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) is an herb native to India that has been used traditionally in Ayurvedic medicine to enhance memory, learning and concentration and also to treat anxiety, heart problems, digestive disorders, asthma, and bronchitis. Most of the research on bacopa has been in animals, but a few small studies on humans have also been done.
The single study I've been able to find on bacopa's effect on memory was a small, double-blind, placebo-controlled 12-week trial conducted in Australia with 46 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 60, divided into two groups. The volunteers in one group were given 300 milligrams of bacopa daily, and the others received a placebo. Prior to the study, the researchers tested all the volunteers to assess their verbal learning abilities, memory and speed of information processing. The tests were repeated five and 12 weeks after the study began. The researchers noted a significant improvement among the volunteers in the bacopa group compared to those in the placebo group.
A review article of some 38 scientific studies of bacopa was published in the March, 2004, issue of the journal Alternative Medicine Review, and noted two small studies that demonstrated an improvement in cognitive function in children as a result of taking bacopa. A single small-scale human study also found a decrease in anxiety symptoms among patients treated with bacopa.
Bacopa is now being widely promoted as a treatment for memory problems, but I would recommend more proven protective strategies. Keep your mind active by reading newspapers and books, doing crossword puzzles, playing musical instruments, participating in ongoing education, and learning a new language. As far as supplements to enhance memory are concerned, the ones listed below have been studied more thoroughly than bacopa:
- Ginkgo biloba. This well-studied botanical remedy increases blood flow to the head, has a reputation as a memory-enhancing agent and may slow the progression of dementia in early onset Alzheimer's disease. You probably won't notice any effects for six to eight weeks. (Look for products standardized to 24 percent ginkgo flavone glycosides and 6 percent terpene lactones; the dose is 60 to 120 milligrams twice a day with food.) Ginkgo has low toxicity, although it may cause mild stomach irritation.
- Acetyl-L-carnitine (also called ALC or ALCAR) is an amino acid derivative. Human clinical studies of this compound are currently underway, and the early evidence from animal trials is encouraging. Many people take ALC as a cognitive enhancer. The dose is 500-1,000 milligrams twice a day on an empty stomach. It is nontoxic, but this is an expensive regimen.
- Phosphatidyl serine, or PS. A naturally occurring lipid that is a component of cell membranes, PS is considered a brain-cell nutrient. Human studies have reported positive effects on memory and concentration; PS may improve cognitive function in normal adults and may help reverse age-related cognitive decline. The supplement form, derived from soybeans, is readily available, but fairly expensive. The starting dose is 100 milligrams two or three times a day; if this produces positive benefits after a month or more, it may be possible to go on a lower maintenance dose. It is nontoxic.
Andrew Weil, M.D.