Bacopa monniera
A Memory Function Enhancer
Revitalize Your Intellect
By Will Block

n the folklore of Indian medicine, certain herbs have been used traditionally as brain or nerve tonics. One of the most popular of these neurotonics is Bacopa monniera, a small, common, amphibious plant growing in marshy areas throughout the Indian subcontinent. Bacopa is also called Brahmi, a name derived from Brahma, the creator god of the Hindu pantheon of deities. It is legendary for its diversity of usage. In the Ayurvedic materia medica, Bacopa has been recognized for its brain-enhancement characteristics.1

According to scientists at the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow, India, 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.2 These are the relay stations of the brain that facilitate the transmission of neural impulses. Thus Bacopa can be viewed as a neural nourisher, restoring depleted synaptic activity and leading to enhanced memory function. In scientific studies, it has been shown to exert a remarkable and unique effect on neurotransmitters. 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.

And that's only the beginning. Among its many other applications, Bacopa has reportedly been effective in reducing anxiety levels, thereby allowing for further improvement of brain functioning and elevated mental performance. It is also believed to help stabilize the brain waves of epileptics. As well, Bacopa is recognized as a treatment for asthma, bronchitis, and hoarseness. In other parts of the body, it has been used successfully as a remedy for rheumatism, for diarrhea, and as a diuretic (increasing urinary flow).

Bacopa also has important antioxidant properties and acts as a metal chelator, removing excess damaging metals from the blood, thus limiting the propagation of free radicals. Perhaps most intriguing of all, in human studies Bacopa monniera appears to increase a child's exploratory behavior, improve visual motor performance, and exercise a positive effect on recall and reaction time.

It is said that the use of Bacopa for memory enhancement goes back 3000 years or more in India, when it was cited for its medicinal properties, especially the memory-enhancing capacity, in the Vedic texts Athar-Ved Samhita (3:1) of 800 B.C. and in Ayurveda.3 Back before written language, ideas and cultural values were transmitted by epic hymns or poems that were committed to memory and transmitted orally from one generation of Brahmins (the highest class of priests) to the next. These epics were the first great teaching tools. One of the four collections, called the Rig-Veda, consisted of 1028 poetic hymns, the recitation of which could last for weeks. Within the Vedic epics is the Mahabharata, which contains about 100,000 couplets. It is the longest poem ever written.

Bacopa is reputed to have played a role in increasing the ability to memorize the great epic poems, possibly helping new generations to learn from the past and not make the same mistakes - a value spoken of by philosopher George Santayana when he wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

For 3000 years, Bacopa has
been cited for its medicinal
properties, especially for
memory-enhancing capacity.

With such amazing properties and long history of use, why have we not heard about Bacopa any sooner? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind, written in the mutable sands of Sanskrit, the language of ancient India. Bacopa is part of the tradition of Ayurvedic medicine that until recently has been largely inaccessible to Western scientists. But all that is now changing.

From perhaps as far back as 6500 years ago, vast ethnobotanical knowledge (native medicinal plants) has been accumulating in India, but starting in the 1950s the study of ethnobotany intensified with the publication of scientific books and papers4 In just the last five decades, studies in this and allied fields have resulted in an expansion of the materia medica of Indian folk medicine that now includes 2532 plants. But this has just scratched the surface, given that India has about 45,000 plant species. Despite its early beginnings (4500-1500 B.C.), combined with a long history of continuous usage, Ayurvedic medicine has received little official support. Significantly, British colonial rule, which lasted 190 years, did little to encourage the progression of traditional Indian culture, including medicine, into modernity. For awhile, so little attention was received for the Ayurvedic tradition from medical practitioners and researchers that it appeared that the fruit would wither on the vine.

But independence for India at mid-century, coupled with the growing worldwide desire for better health, finally tapped into the Indian treasure-chest via botany, pharmacognosy (the study of natural drugs), pharmacology, chemistry, and the biotechnology of herbal medicines. At last the value of Indian native medicine has been recognized, with work underway on psychoactive plants, household remedies, and the offerings of street drug vendors. At last statistical methods are being applied to assess the credibility of traditional claims. Bacopa is but one of a growing number of botanicals reaching the market, as are other Ayurvedic herbs. These are exciting times!

Our understanding of Bacopa starts with its tradition: the cornucopia of its therapeutic uses, including those for the brain and the respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and immune systems. How is it possible that one plant can have all these effects? The answer is that there are a great many active substances in Bacopa, only a few of which have been elucidated by science.

In addition to the bacosides A and B already mentioned, Bacopa contains a wide variety of medically active substances, including stigmasterol, sapogenins, and flavonoids. Other compounds include triterpenoid saponins and other alkaloids (nitrogen-based organic substances), such as brahmine and herpestine. Bacopa also contains D-mannitol, betulic acid, beta-sitosterol, octacosane, nicotine, and amino acids such as alpha-alanine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid, and serine5 Each of these ingredients imparts its own special enhancements, as a review of the literature shows.

Those children taking Bacopa
were superior in matters
of speed and accuracy in
solving maze problems

Rats were individually trained in a simple T-maze until they reached a predetermined level of performance.6 They were then divided into three groups and given either nothing, diazepam (Valium®), or Bacopa. At the end of 10 days, they were evaluated by repeating the T-maze trial. Those animals given Bacopa showed remarkable learning and memory enhancement, compared with the control and Valium groups. Furthermore, the neurochemical content of their brain tissue showed an increase in the level of serotonin. Serotonin has been identified with improved spatial memory as well as anxiolytic (antianxiety) benefits.

In another experimental study, an extract of Bacopa was given to albino rats to measure its effect on three newly acquired behavioral responses: brightness discrimination, conditioned avoidance, and continuous avoidance.7 The facilitating effect of the Bacopa was clearly discernible in all three learning responses, augmenting both the rats' cognitive function and mental retention capacity. The rats learned faster, retained more of what they had learned, and remembered it longer.

Also in this experiment, the chemical constituents responsible for the facilitating effect of Bacopa on learning schedules were identified as a mixture of bacosides A and B. These compounds significantly improved the three learned responses; they also enhanced taste memory and lessened the amnesia produced by immobilization and by electrically and chemically induced stress. The bacosides also enhanced vital protein activity and produced an increase in protein synthesis in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is important for long-term memory. The results were dose-dependent.

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

When bacosides A and B were investigated in a rat study involving brightness discrimination, a single oral dose given just 90 minutes before training increased the number of positive responses and enhanced relearning.8 Given every other day, Bacopa increased reaction times, demonstrating its ability to enhance mental capacity through improved responses whether reinforcement was negative or positive. During the International Brain Research Conferences held in Australia in 1996, scientists from India's Central Drug Research Institute reported that taking Bacopa reduced the time needed to learn a specific task to six days, while the control subjects (who did not take Bacopa) took a full 10 days to learn the same task. The researchers also reported that Bacopa enhances episodic memory, which pertains to skill and experience.9

We cannot be healthy without
an intact memory

For four weeks, 35 patients were treated for anxiety neurosis.10 After treatment, they were assessed for clinical anxiety levels, maladjustment level, mental fatigue rate, and immediate memory span. In those patients receiving Bacopa:

  • Anxiety levels were lowered by about 20%.
  • Maladjustment was significantly lower than its corresponding pretreatment value.
  • Mental fatigue, as determined in total daily work output, was lower.
  • Immediate memory-span scores were significantly increased.

In other words, Bacopa improved memory and productivity by reducing anxiety and related problems.

In addition to these findings, just four weeks of Bacopa therapy resulted in a decrease in average systolic blood pressure, from 117 mmHg to 112 mmHg, and a significant improvement in respiratory function: breath-holding time increased from 35 seconds to 48 seconds (a 37% increase). Patients also showed a reduction in adrenocortical function, indicating a less stressed state. As well, notable relief was found from other symptoms of anxiety: insomnia, headache, irritability, lack of concentration, anorexia, dyspepsia, tremors, palpitation, and nervousness. Unlike other antianxiety compounds, Bacopa was thought by the researchers to increase nonspecific overall resistance to stress (the so-called "adaptogenic" effect), allowing the system to adapt effortlessly to a work overload, for example.

In attempting to explain the role of Bacopa in memory, epilepsy, insomnia, sedation, and other phenomena, its action as an antioxidant has been suggested. One study examined how it might help prevent induced lipid peroxidation.11 Its protective capacity was found to compare favorably to the effects of the chelating agent EDTA and to those of the natural antioxidant vitamin E. The researchers could not discern whether Bacopa's principal mechanism of action was related to its metal-chelating or antioxidant properties.

The results did suggest, however, that Bacopa is a potent antioxidant. It has been suggested that its role in memory enhancement may be due in part to its ability to increase brain circulation by inhibiting oxidative damage in the brain. It also enhances serotonin levels in the brain.

Another interesting application comes from clinical reports of Bacopa's use for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. In a study conducted at BRD Medical College at Gorakhpur, 36 children in the 8-10-year age group were selected for a double-blind, randomized trial.12 While 19 were given 50 mg of Bacopa twice daily, 17 others received placebo. After 12 weeks of treatment, the children were subjected to a battery of specialized tests. The data revealed a significant improvement in the areas of sentence repetition, logical memory, and pair-associative learning (matching things that go together; e.g., "test" and "grade") in all 19 ADHD children who took Bacopa. Evaluation did not occur until four weeks after withdrawal from Bacopa usage, indicating that it had a lasting effect. According to Dr. Asthana, head of the pediatric department, the study ". . . beyond doubt established the efficacy and tolerability of [Bacopa] as there were no side effects."

The Nobel Prize medallion.
According to one report, Nobel Prize winner Dr. Robert Furchgott examined Bacopa and concluded that it worked similarly to nitric oxide (the subject of his prize-winning research). Quoting Dr Furchgott, "The compound [Bacopa] has been tested in our laboratory . . . . Based on our experiments . . . this compound appears to release nitric oxide . . . . The compound causes at least 75% relaxation of the [heart muscle] . . . ."13

Apparently, Dr. Furchgott's interest in Bacopa has echoed around the planet, as higher-ups in the worlds of politics and chess, for example, have announced that they use it. India's prime minister, Inder K. Gujral, and young chess master Vishwanathan Anand have chimed in and said that they are Bacopa users. "Basically it tends to improve memory fairly substantially in six to eight weeks," said India's minister of state for science and technology, Yogendra K. Alagh,14 who half-jokingly prescibed Bacopa for all members of the parliament.15 Bacopa appears to have political as well as commercial value in India.

As researcher Paris Kidd reports,16 Bacopa has been used traditionally to consecrate newborns in the hope of improving their intelligence, to "open the gate of Brahma." This is similar to the use of ephedra juice, believed to be the drink of longevity, that ancient Aryans also gave to their newborns, a custom mentioned in the Vedic text the Rig-Veda.17

Even nowadays, Bacopa is given to schoolchildren for the same purpose, without apparent side effects. In a fascinating study, Sharma and colleagues gave one-half of a group of 40 healthy children (ages 6-8) Bacopa in a syrup base three times a day (a total of 1.05 g/day) over the course of four weeks, while giving the other half a placebo.18 Using standard psychological tests to measure eye-hand coordination and perception abilities, as well as memory span and visual motor ability, what the researchers found was interesting.

Those children taking Bacopa were superior in matters of speed and accuracy in solving maze problems. Overall, these improvements "vitalized" the children's efficacy and their propensity to choose exploratory behavior and to opt for novel experiences in preference to familiar ones. This function is regarded as central to curiosity, a complex function that is related to a number of other attributes, such as motivation, arousal, attention, and novelty preference.

Exploratory behavior may also be related to lifespan.19 When it takes hold in the early years (the earlier the better), the result can be integrative. Psychologically, as we grow older, exploratory behavioral development is likely to channel into and serve both libidinal and aggressive aims. Sharma and colleagues would have us believe that Bacopa alters psychology, not unlike a great teacher, or the impact of an extraordinary experience. Interesting, but not substantiated.

Bacopa monniera

Immediate memory and perception and the children's reaction/performance times were also found to be changed by Bacopa. Short-term memory and recall were significantly improved too. On yet another front, Bacopa vitalized the children's ability to handle increasingly difficult tasks. At the same time, vigilance and attention were enhanced - skills thought necessary to organize perceptions and improve perceptual motor functions. Developmentally, vigilance and attention skills are very important.

You may ask, "What does the effect of Bacopa on children have to do with me, an adult?" Simply put, an herb that is so benevolent that it can be given to a child and that produces discernible cognitive effects for the child is very likely to do the same for an adult. The results of dosing regimens derived from studies on children cannot be extrapolated to adults if the children are too young. Three years of age appears to be the point after which extrapolation is valid.20 The Bacopa studies were done with children between the ages of 6 and 8.

In their discussion, the researchers conclude that Bacopa is a useful agent for enhancing and vitalizing the psychology of intellectual behavior. Realizing that their conclusions collide with conventional concepts of intelligence, in which genetic heritage is viewed as the chief determinant, modified somewhat by one's environment, Sharma and colleagues hold their line: the future will see the development of "orthomolecular psychology" and the increased use of phytonutrients and other nutritional supplements for motivating intellectual behavior.

The natural agent Bacopa, Sharma and colleagues believe, can enhance intelligence and intellectual functions traditionally claimed to be genetic. And they believe that scientific research into novelty-promoting mechanisms and supplements may alter our view of evolutionary biology - that intelligence is by and large the product of inheritance. In other words, the effects of Bacopa may be able to influence the psychoneurological functions associated with intellectual behavior. If true, with enough evidence, the entire basis of modern presuppositions about the nature of intelligence may be turned on end.

Continuing the work of Sharma et al., just recently, at the Nair Children's Hospital in Bombay, another placebo-controlled, double-blind study tested the efficacy of Bacopa on children.21 For six weeks, 50 normal schoolchildren split into two groups were given either Bacopa or placebo. At the conclusion, they were evaluated for attention, concentration, and memory. Bacopa was shown to improve mean reaction time (auditory and visual) significantly.

Researchers believe that, among its other mechanisms, Bacopa meditates the GABAergic system.22 Gamma-aminobutyric acid is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that has been shown to possess anticonvulsive, antinociceptive (prevention of pain due to hypersensitive nerve endings), locomotor, and sedative effects. Because Bacopa also has all these properties, it is reasonable to speculate that a similar mechanism of action explains its effects on the brain and the body. Like some other GABAergic agents, Bacopa may be able to help protect against epilepsy by regulating the memory-transmission molecules that govern motor mechanisms and potentiate neuronal signaling: dopamine and acetylcholine.

In another placebo-controlled study, 169 patients with irritable bowel syndrome were given a Bacopa preparation. They experienced considerable improvement: 65%, compared to 33% in the control group.23

This study and others indicate that the toxicity of Bacopa is very low. A person weighing just 60 kg (132 lbs) would have to take more than 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of the extract daily to produce a dangerous reaction. The actual suggested dose of Bacopa is 60 mg three times a day, or 180 mg/day, so there is clearly a very high safety margin.

Another study has found that the pain response caused by hypersensitive nerve endings is decreased after using Bacopa.22 This response can be caused by either an intestinal or central nervous system condition. The latter is usually associated with cancer pain, meaning that Bacopa may be able to alleviate some of the pain in patients with this disease. Consistent with this is the knowledge that Bacopa also produces tranquilizing effects, which add to its adaptogenic and antidepressant benefits. And there are virtually no side effects.

Hardly any loss that we can suffer in this world is more feared than that of memory. For most of our early lives, healthy brain function is a given, and then one day we begin to realize our fragility. Whether involving our professional or our social life, good memory comes to be seen as a precious asset.

The truth is that our health is inextricably connected to happiness, and a crucial part of happiness is our sense of identity, which is predicated on properly functioning memory. Through everything that we do and whoever we truly are or become, it is our memory that comprises the most significant aspect of our personalities. Not coincidentally, memory determines how we act with other people. As it determines what goes on outside, it determines what goes on inside. We cannot be healthy without an intact memory.

When age approaches us on the road of life and holds us up, it does so as a highwayman who says: "Your memory or your life." In reality, though, there is no choice. We cannot be robbed of our memory and still preserve our identity. We cannot lose our memory and still have our health. We cannot lose our memory and still be happy. So we first look to time-tested natural compounds such as Bacopa to see us through, to stave off some of what we have lost or will surely lose, or perhaps even to recapture lost facilities. And - who knows? - to take us, perhaps, to places of mind we might not otherwise know.


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  9. Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow, India. NLAC-Newsletter, Spring 1996.
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  13. Report of nitric oxide production by Bacopa monniera as tested in Dr. Robert F. Furchgott's laboratory, State University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn, October 1998.
  14. Miglani S. For Gujral, memories are made of this . . . . Asian Times, April 22, 1997.
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  19. Mayes LC. Exploring internal and external worlds. Reflections on being curious. Psychoanal Study Child 1991;46:3-36.
  20. Conroy S, Choonara I, Impicciatore P, Mohn A, Arnell H, Rane A, Knoeppel C, Seyberth H, Pandolfini C, Raffaelli MP, Rocchi F, Bonati M, Jong G, de Hoog M, van Den Anker J, Survey of unlicensed and off label drug use in paediatric wards in European countries. BMJ 2000 Jan 8;320(7227):79-82.
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