Health Issues

Enhance and Preserve
Youthful Brain Function

By Will Block

When we’re young and alert, it’s hard believe that our lightning sharp wits will ever loose their edge. Yet, look around and notice how many people in their 50s and 60s, and certainly in their 70s and beyond, complain about losing their memory, having those “senior moments.” They lack the mental energy they once took for granted. As the years go by, their speech may begin to slur. To many doctors, this is considered “normal” aging – “What do you expect, you’re 75 years old!”

Yet, there’s nothing normal about this. The brain contains so much redundancy of function that we can afford to lose a lot of neurons and not have any obvious symptoms. For many brain tasks, we only need 20% of working neurons to have virtually normal function. So, even when Alzheimer’s disease is not present, such symptoms reflect a substantial degree of brain damage.

The good news is, age-related brain damage, including Alzheimer’s disease, is not inevitable. There is much we can do to prevent these symptoms and even enhance youthful brain function. The bad news is, if we wait until symptoms start to appear, it may already be too late. So, if we want to have a youthful brain in old age, the time to start preserving it is now. There are many approaches we can take. Thanks to a variety of different mechanisms of action, many of these measures have benefits that can be additive or even synergistic.

Spanish Sage (Salvia lavandulaefolia) Sharpens Intellect, Improves Mood

This venerable herb, with a long history in many ancient medical traditions all over the world, has been recognized for its ability to enhance memory and “strengthening the brain.” Several recent scientific studies on Salvia lavandulaefolia now confirm the cognitive advantages of using Spanish sage, including a faster, more accurate memory and significant improvements in alertness, calmness, and contentedness.1 Spanish sage is a complex substance that appears to have a variety of possible modes of action, including anticholinesterace (acetylcholine-enhancing), antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and estrogenic activity. By taking Spanish sage while our minds are still sharp and alert, we may be able to preserve a high level of cognitive functioning long into old age, warding off not only the effects of “normal” aging, but possibly even the devastating destruction of Alzheimer’s disease.

Cinnamon May Protect Cognitive Function in Diabetes

Insulin is well known as the hormone that regulates the level of blood sugar. When insulin loses control over blood sugar levels, we call the disease diabetes. But insulin has many other functions in the body as well. Among the more interesting of these is its ability to help to regulate cognitive function. Recent investigations on insulin have shown that it affects the membrane composition of neurons (nerve cells), promotes neuronal growth, regulates the levels of certain brain neurotransmitters, and even prevents neuronal firing in specific regions of the brain.2–4

In Germany, researchers investigating the role of insulin on cognitive function in normal, healthy adults have shown that a continuous intravenous infusion of insulin into the bloodstream over a short time period does indeed improve cognitive function.5

A number of studies support a link between diabetes and impaired cognition. A 1997 review article identified 13 of 19 controlled studies in which people with type 2 (adult onset) diabetes showed impaired performance on at least one measure of cognition. Most commonly affected was verbal memory. Many recent studies show that diabetes increases the risk of cognitive decline. They also suggest that the longer the disease persists, the greater the risk. In one study, older women who suffered from diabetes for more than 15 years had a 57% to 114% increased risk of major cognitive decline compared to nondiabetic women.6 Consistent with these results is the observation that diabetics have a 2- to 3-fold increased risk of developing dementia of either the vascular or Alzheimer’s type (vascular dementia is caused by impaired blood flow to the brain).7

Moreover, researchers in Canada have found that healthy young volunteers with moderately impaired glucose regulation (but not diabetes) also display cognitive deficits.8 This means that, given that a wide swath of the population is susceptible to either diabetes or impaired glucose regulation across all ages, it is possible that cognitive impairment may be a more prevalent condition than has previously been thought.

Consequently, there is great interest in identifying natural compounds that have insulin-like or insulin-potentiating activity. A common spice that has emerged as a shining star in this quest is cinnamon. A few years ago, researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture demonstrated that a certain cinnamon extract was far and away the most effective compound in promoting glucose metabolism.

Cinnamon contains a particularly active component, methylhydroxychalcone polymer (MHCP), which mimics insulin function in important ways. In cultured-cell assays, MHCP activates some of the same cellular pathways as insulin; it specifically increases glucose uptake by cells, and it signals certain kinds of cells to convert glucose to glycogen for energy storage.9 Does MHCP also help to improve cognition? To date, no research has been conducted to relate the benefits of MHCP to cognitive function, but we do know that MHCP mimics insulin in laboratory studies and that insulin increases cognitive function in healthy adults. So, if we connect the research dots, it is plausible to conclude that MHCP may promote improved cognition by activating an insulin-mediated pathway in specific regions of the brain.

Rather than take large amounts of cinnamon powder every day, it is preferable and more convenient to take its most potent component, MHCP. Doing so may help achieve optimal nutritional balance in the most complex piece of machinery in the body, the brain.

Bacopa Enhances Memory and Other Cognitive Functions

The plant, Bacopa monniera has been part of Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of folk medicine, for several thousand years. In Ayurvedic medicine, Bacopa, a perennial creeping marsh herb, has been used as a memory-enhancing, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antipyretic, sedative, and anti-epileptic agent. Of these, the memory-enhancing function of Bacopa has attracted the most interest – and the best evidence for efficacy – in the West, where the acid test is blinded, controlled laboratory experiments and clinical trials.

Scientists in Australia recently conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled, 12-week study of Bacopa (also called Brahmi) in healthy human subjects aged 18 to 60 years.10 The treatment consisted of either placebo or a Bacopa extract: 150 mg (equivalent to 3 g of the dried herb) taken in capsule form twice daily (300 mg/day total) for 12 weeks. Compared to placebo, Bacopa significantly improved the speed of early information processing, verbal learning rate, and memory consolidation. These results are in accord with previous animal studies and clinical trials on children and on patients with anxiety neurosis, all of which showed that Bacopa extracts caused learning and memory-enhancing effects.

The results of the Australian study also showed a significant anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effect, which was consistent with prior research, as well. This effect might be due to modulation of brain levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, because Bacopa does modulate serotonin levels in animals. Serotonin plays an important role in mood regulation, among other functions. Most advanced antidepressant medications work by facilitating serotonergic activity in brain synapses. Animal studies also show that Bacopa modulates the brain levels of acetylcholine, another important neurotransmitter, which is involved in memory and other cognitive functions.

In addition to its effects on brain neurotransmitters, Bacopa has antioxidant effects that may account, at least in part, for its cognitive enhancing functions.11 In laboratory studies, researchers found that Bacopa extracts inhibit experimentally induced lipid peroxidation. Lipids are fatty substances, such as cholesterol and triglycerides. In the bloodstream, lipid peroxidation (oxidation initiated by free radicals) is highly damaging, because it leads to the formation of atherosclerotic plaque in the arteries. Thus, anything that can help to inhibit lipid peroxidation can be beneficial to our health, because it slows the progression of atherosclerosis. Bacopa also acts as a metal chelator, removing excess damaging metals from the blood, thus limiting the propagation of free radicals.

According to Indian scientists, certain “memory chemicals” in Bacopa, called bacosides A and B, help repair damaged neurons by enhancing proteins involved in the regeneration of neural-cell synapses,12 the vital microscopic junctions across which nerve cells communicate with each other. Thus Bacopa can be viewed as a neural nourisher, restoring depleted synaptic activity and leading to improved memory function. This translates to enhanced exploratory behavior, greater desire to seek out novelty, sharpened memory, and increased learning and retention. Bacopa may even be able to revitalize intelligence. Perhaps most intriguing of all, in human studies Bacopa monniera appears to increase children’s exploratory behavior, improve visual motor performance, and exercise a positive effect on recall and reaction time.

Pharmacologic and toxicologic studies have found Bacopa to be safe and well tolerated by normal, healthy male volunteers in the dose range of 100 to 200 mg per day. Females were not tested, but there is no reason to think that the results would have been different.

Ginkgo Makes Young (and Old) Adults Sharper

One of the most widely used herbal products for enhancing memory and cognitive function is an extract of the leaves of Ginkgo biloba, believed to be the oldest living tree species on earth. So popular is this remedy for declining memory that in Germany alone, over 6 million prescriptions were written for ginkgo in a single year. (That’s right, prescriptions. In Germany and many other countries, ginkgo is treated as a drug.)

Although ginkgo has traditionally been associated with slowing memory decline in the elderly, evidence suggests that it can improve mental function in the young as well. Recent study reports show that even 20-year-olds can improve their cognitive performance and mood after taking a single daily serving of ginkgo.13 Other research shows that extended use of ginkgo also benefits younger adults who normally exhibit no obvious memory dysfunction.14–15 Specifically, the speed at which they process information increases after taking ginkgo supplements for 1 month. Together, these studies demonstrate that ginkgo not only benefits a geriatric population but may also enhance cognitive and information-processing regions of the brain in healthy young adults.

It has long been known that ginkgo improves blood circulation and promotes the cellular uptake and utilization of nutrients carried in the blood. In addition, ginkgo appears to increase the amount of blood flow directly to the brain.16 Not surprisingly, researchers initially believed that improved circulation in the brain, which increases the amounts of oxygen and glucose delivered to the neurons (brain cells), was responsible for improved cognitive performance. While this is still likely to be true, additional factors may figure in the ginkgo/cognition equation. Researchers now believe that ginkgo may act directly on the neurons. They propose that ginkgo may stimulate neuronal activity and help protect the cells from injury, thereby preserving their function. Thus, a dual action may be at work in ginkgo’s effects on our brains.


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