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Supplements, both legal and illegal, have been used for centuries to enhance cognitive performance.
For example, Sigmund Freud used cocaine to prevent fatigue. In fact, he is reputed to have written some of his most popular psychoanalytic works while under the influence.
Entrepreneur and author Tim Ferriss is also known for his experiments into so-called “smart drugs”.
Today, caffeine is a popular choice, used as a cognitive stimulant and is often consumed in very high doses. The widely consumed regular size Starbucks coffee contains five times the amount of caffeine of a normal coffee (Mehlman 2004).
Yet another common cognitive enhancer is nicotine, most commonly ingested through inhalation. It’s been found that nicotine has the ability to improve cognition in areas such as attention, memory and motor skills (Heishman et al 2010).
The reality is that most of us are not open to experimenting with unhealthy or illegal drugs to enhance our cognition.
But with the aging population and increase in age-related memory deterioration, many are turning to out-of-the-box solutions (Mehlman 2004). Discovering a quick-fix pill that protects and even enhances memory would be both beneficial and exciting.
This lusty market for an easy memory solution has been quickly filled with many drugs claiming to have amazing brain-boosting potential. Known as Nootropic supplements, these cognition-enhancing drugs make bold claims about their ability to increase their user’s memory.
In comes science to cut through the marketing hype and give us real answers about whether these pills really work.
Before we continue, here’s an important disclaimer: By offering this information in written form and by including videos of various people explaining or supporting the uses of supplements for memory, I in no way intend to validate, support or recommend the use of memory supplements. Please see your doctor before taking any substance and always, always use mnemonics. 😉
That said, if you’re ready to experience the Matrix of memory supplements, take the red pill and let’s get started.
As people start to live longer, the potential for memory loss grows higher. In fact, 11% of people over the age of 65 live with Alzheimer’s. As current treatments have limited effectiveness and come with severe side-effects, scientists are scrambling to find better treatments (Guoyan 2013).
In their quest, a supplement called Huperzine A has been tested for potential benefits.
Huperzine A is a dietary supplement. This supplement is made from an extract of a plant called “toothed firmoss”, also known as Huperzia serrata. Toothed firmoss is native to India and Southeast Asia. In traditional eastern medical practices, it has been used to treat bruises, muscle strains, colds and to improve blood circulation.
As with most cognition-enhancing supplements, firm conclusions about whether Huperzine A can enhance memory cannot be made. There are not many studies completed on the supplement, and those that have been conducted only included a small sample size (Yang et al. 2013).
Nonetheless, the findings thus far seem promising.
A recent 2013 research paper reviewed all available evidence on the efficacy of Huperzine A to improve or correct memory deterioration. The paper found that Huperzine A demonstrated positive effects on memory recall for those with memory issues. In some studies, Huperzine A even out-performed traditional treatments for Alzheimer’s (Yang et al. 2013).
But what are the effects for younger people without formal memory impairment?
A study looked at treating self-reported memory problems in otherwise healthy adolescent students. . In total, 68 students were given either a placebo or Huperzine A.
After four weeks, the student who took Huperzine A showed signs of significant memory improvement, with no side effects reported (Sun et al 1999).
As data on Huperzine A is still too scant, you won’t find a doctor commonly prescribing this drug just yet. What’s more, the evidence is pointing primarily to Huperzine A’s usefulness for short-term memory improvements (Yang et al. 2013).
But don’t go running to the drugstore to pick up these supplements quite yet. As with any drug, it’s best to consult with your pharmacist or doctor before taking the supplement. Although Huperzine A appears to be well-tolerated in short durations, side-effects such as nauseous, epilepsy and slow heart rate have been reported. Currently, no studies have been conducted on the long-term side effects of Huperzine A.
Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC) is naturally produced in the body. Unlike many supplements and compounds, it is able to cross the brain-blood and directly affect the brain. It’s function in the body includes improving neuron cell health and preventing excessive brain cell death. For this reason, scientists have considered its potential for improving cognition and memory. However, marketers have skipped a step and have gone directly to selling the supplement as a cognitive enhancer.
But does the evidence support the marketing?
Not so much.
A major review of the use of ALC on improving cognition in Alzheimer’s patients was performed by Cochrane Journal in 2003. It reviewed all of the studies which had investigated the effects of ALC on declining memory.
The results were sobering.
Many measures of cognition were tested and the review only found a slight improvement on a single measure of cognition. This measure was not directly related to memory. What’s more, the review cautioned that even this small positive effect may be due to chance (Hudson, Sheila and Naji 2003).
This review casts serious doubt on ALC’s ability to improve memory, despite marketing claims.
Since 2003, more studies have explored the effects of ALC on memory and cognition improvement. For example, a 2011 study analyzed ALC’s effects on those with severe hepatic encephalopathy, a disease that impacts brain function. For those assessed, the study did show some improvements in cognition including memory (Malaguarnera 2011).
However, this evidence is preliminary and did not directly mirror the effect of ALC on memory.
Overall, the evidence for ALC is weak. More information is needed before the cognitive benefits claimed by ALC manufacturers can actually be proven.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a naturally-occurring compound that is consumed as part of a normal diet. It can be purchased as an over-the-counter supplement in many grocery stores and pharmacies.
PS is a supplement with a long history. Initially, there was great interest and many scientific studies were conducted on PS derived from cow brains. After fears of mad cow disease became more prevalent, this supplement fell out of favor (Zchut et al. 2013).
In the mid-1990s, soybean-derived PS became available. This safer alternative once again garnered attention from the scientific community (Zchut et al. 2013).
So far, findings from both the cow-derived and soybean-derived PS have shown promise for improving memory.
For example, in a study of over 388 cognitively-impaired older adults, PS was effective in improving word-list recall.
What’s more is that positive effects have been observed for normally-aging adults. In a study of 149 normally aging adults, PS was compared against a placebo in a variety of memory tests. This study found that the PS-taking adults were better able to coordinate face recognition tests as compared to the placebo group. However, their results were comparable to the placebo-taking participants for various memory recall tests (Villardita et al 1987).
Despite the appearance of a few well-designed studies demonstrating positive results, the overall picture seems less exciting. A review produced in 2003 found that the effects of PS on memory were inconsistent and modest, at best (McDaniel, Maier and Einstein 2003). In the same review however, scientists did underline that the results were positive enough to warrant further research.
As a result, since 2003 more studies have been conducted.
Most recently, a study published in 2014 investigated the efficacy of a omega 3/PS combo supplement on memory enhancement. They recruited 122 healthy seniors who voiced complaints about their memory (but not memory deterioration, such as dementia).
After 15 weeks on the drug, the study found a significant improvement in the memory of its members. This memory improvement was identified by participants and was measured objectively through a memory test (Vakhapova 2014).
A definite bonus for PS is that it seems to be a safe supplement. In the same 2003 review cited earlier, no adverse effects were reported (McDaniel, Maier and Einstein 2003). As always however, it’s best to consult with a pharmacist or physician, especially if you consume other medications or substances.
Bacopa is also known as Brahmi and is a natural herb in India. It is a small plant with oblong leaves and light purple flowers. It has a long history of use in Indian medicine. Traditionally, it has been used in the treatment of disorders including anxiety, intellect and poor memory.
Bacopa is currently marketed in Western countries as a memory enhancing supplement. Until recently, the only published studies on the effects of Bacopa had been tested on animals. Since the early 2000s, more studies on humans have been conducted.
One of the earlier human studies included 84 volunteers, who took either a placebo or Bacopa. These volunteers were healthy and between the ages of 40 to 65 (Roodenrys et al. 2002).
The participants were given three months worth of Bacopa supplements (or placebo, depending on their group). They were tested on multiple occasions during these months for various tests of memory (Roodenrys et al. 2002).
It was found that Bacopa-taking volunteers did not show any improvement over their placebo-taking partners on most memory tests. However, those who took Bacopa did experience a significant improvement in their ability to retain new information (Roodenrys et al. 2002).
This study has been followed up by more research exhibiting positive results. For instance, a study conducted in 2008 compared the effects of Bacopa versus a placebo over 90 days. Included were 62 healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 to 60.
When compared to the placebo group, takers of the Bacopa supplement saw significant improvements in their working memory performance. Much like PS, the drug was also well tolerated without many real side effects (Stough et al. 2008)
With positive evidence mounting, a systematic review of Bacopa studies was published in 2012. The review pursued all randomized controlled trials on the cognitive effects of Bacopa. This meant that they only included trials with a placebo, which neither the researchers nor the patient knew about (Pase et al 2012).
The results showed that Bacopa was beneficial for improving cognitive function related to attention, and especially, speed of attention. The paper suggests that Bacopa can reduce the time needed to complete a task by around 18 ms (Pase et al 2012).
The researchers were hesitant to say that the evidence strongly favored Bacopa for memory improvement. Although individually, studies do show improvements in different aspects of memory, the overall significance of those effects were unclear.
However, since Bacopa seems to lack any severe side-effects, it might be worth a try – with your doctor’s approval of course.
Then again, you might want to look into vitamins for memory improvement to see if they create an advantage first.
Ever see a periwinkle flower? It’s that cute flower with that dazzling blue hue. You might be surprised to hear it’s also the plant from which another commonly marketed brain-booster is derived.
Vinpocetine was developed in Hungary, and is currently used in mainstream medicine. However, it’s use in medicine is not directly related to memory. Instead, it has been scientifically proven to increase blood flow to the brain (McDaniel, Maier and Einstein 2003).
But can it increase the memory juice flowing through your mind?
What seems to be certain is that the improved blood flow to the brain does have positive effects on overall cognition. For example, in a study conducted on dementia patients, 87% of vinpocetine patients improved – as compared to only 11% of placebo patients (Manconi et al. 1987)
You also want to consider brain exercise apps for memory improvement. The truth may shock you.
Overall, experiments on the effects of vinpocetine directly on memory are lacking. In one of the only studies looking at the effects vinpocetine on Alzheimer’s, no benefit was observed (Thal et al. 1989). Therefore, the jury is still out inasmuch as the benefits of vinpocetine are concerned.
However, vinpocetine seems to have minimal risks associated with it as well.
As you can see, definitive research into the link between supplements and memory enhancements is still in its infancy. Despite bold claims made by these supplement marketers, this article demonstrates that overall evidence is far from complete and decisive.
The number one thing that people can do to enhance and protect memory is to follow a healthy diet and exercise regularly.
However, for those looking for an edge, above and beyond diet and exercise, some of these supplements may be worth considering. And if you’re a student, don’t miss these 21 tips for studying better.
As amply repeated in this article, it is very important to seek medical guidance when trying new supplements. Although most of these supplements have not shown severe side-effects, they may react with other medications.
What’s more, none of these supplements have been studied for their long term effects. For all we know, these may actually lead to memory degradation with years of use. Any use of these supplements should be restricted to no more than three months at a time.
At the very least, these supplements offer a fruitful field of research. There is at least enough evidence to show that these brain-boosting supplements deserve more research. As does the question of whether or not you can really improve memory like Sherlock Holmes.
It’s up to you to decide if you’d like to take part in the experiment.
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