Bacopa monniera may help us to reawaken the memory vitality of our youth, enabling us to
Remember Not to Forget
BY WILL BLOCK
We forget. Oh, how we forget. But then, how many things are worth remembering? Quite a few when you really get down to it, especially complex tasks, such as how to walk, or how to ride a bike, or how to type, or program, or cook a meal. All of these are extremely worthwhile, yet some are more easily forgotten than others. Could there be a principle involved? Scientists are not in agreement on this point, but it appears that the laying of "new tracks" (such as learning how to walk or how to ride a bike - if we learned as a young child) is a more indelible type of memory. Indelibility! If only we could reenvision our learning processes so that they all contained the "vivid brightness of a newborn day" when we first became aware, as children.
BACOPA AND LEARNING IN CHILDREN
The herb Bacopa monniera has been found to help delay the extinction of learned tasks. This means that Bacopa helps to create a vividness or brightness or indelibility, such that memory, especially of tasks, becomes ingrained and more permanent. When children were given Bacopa in several studies, there was an increase in exploratory behavior, combined with an improved visual motor performance. As well, Bacopa exercised a positive effect on recall and reaction time (see Revitalize Your Intellect - March 2000).
BACOPA HISTORICALLY USED FOR MEMORY
Speaking of delaying the extinction of learned tasks, legend has it that Bacopa was the memory tonic of choice 3000 years ago among Indian "troubadours," whose task it was to memorize extremely long Vedas (Hindu sacred texts), some of which told of the medical properties of Bacopa (the Ayurveda).
Before there was a written Sanskrit language, ideas and cultural values were passed on through epic stories in the form of hymns or poems. These were committed to memory and transmitted orally from one generation of Brahmins (the highest class of priests) to the next (one of the alternative names for Bacopa is Brahmi). They were extraordinary for their value as 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 FOR MIND, MEMORY, AND KNOWLEDGE
Understandably, anything that could increase memory, especially episodic or verbal memory, would have been highly prized. Such was the case with Bacopa, about which a reputation grew as the "epic tonic." It was reputed to have played a vital role in increasing the ability to memorize the great epic poems and thus preserve the wisdom of the past.
As an Ayurvedic member of the materia medica (substances used in the preparation of medicinal drugs), Bacopa is classified as a medhyarasayana (an herb used to improve memory and intellect, or medhya). The Ayurvedic texts accentuate the crucial role of the mind in maintaining well-being and balance in life, and medhya herbal formulas help unlock full mental potential and ability. There are three subclasses:
Bacopa is unique in that it seems to fall easily into all three categories: mind, memory, and knowledge. Above all, studies have indicated that it revitalizes the processes of learning, tending to create "newness" and a preference for novelty.
- Dhi relates to understanding, and is the basis of comprehension and learning.
- Dhriti is retention or memory, which is the ability to store knowledge for future reference.
- Smriti allows one to recall and use what has been learned.
BACOPA INCREASES ANTIOXIDANT ACTIVITY IN THE BRAIN
How does Bacopa work? What are its mechanisms? According to a paper just published, the most active ingredient in Bacopa, called bacoside A, increases antioxidant activity in specific areas of the brain.1 Rats were studied to determine the effect of nearly chronic administration of Bacopa for 7, 14, and 21 days. The antiparkinsonian drug deprenyl (selegiline) was administered to another group of rats over the same time periods, and the effects of the two treatment regimens were compared.
Bacopa was found to increase, in proportion to the dose, the activity of the endogenous antioxidants SOD (superoxide dismutase), CAT (catalase), and GPX (glutathione peroxidase) in all the brain regions investigated, but only after the longer periods (14 and 21 days). Deprenyl, which has been shown in some studies to increase lifespan2 and in others to protect the brain,3 was also found to increase the activity of the endogenous antioxidants, but it did not perform as well as Bacopa in all areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, a structure normally rich in the memory neurotransmitter acetylcholine. In a previous study, Bacopa had been found to reverse the drug-caused depletion of acetylcholine in the hippocampus.4
ANTIOXIDANTS CAN ALLEVIATE MEMORY DEFICITS
Research has shown that memory deficits caused by neurotoxins (an idea proposed as an animal model for Alzheimer's disease) can be alleviated through the use of antioxidants.5 Other research indicates that neurodegeneration caused by oxidative stress injury also affects memory.6 Indeed, the neurodegeneration caused by the accumulation of neurotoxic free radicals has been proposed as the causal factor in Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and aging itself.7 What allows for the oxidative degradation that results in neurodegeneration and memory loss is a defect in the body's defense system that normally wards off damage. As Dr. Denham Harman, creator of the free radical theory of aging, has written, these problems result from decreased function of the free-radical-scavenging enzymes, primarily SOD, CAT, and GPX.8 Thus, the potential therapies in these neurodegenerative conditions entail finding compounds that are capable of augmenting the body's natural defense systems.9
HOW BACOPA MAY "ANTIAGE" YOUR BRAIN
Of all the free radicals in living organisms, the most abundant are the superoxide radical and the highly destructive hydroxyl radical. These radicals appear to work together to induce degeneration by oxidizing membrane lipids, breaking DNA strands, and damaging cellular proteins. The enzymatic defense system operates as a chain, starting with SOD and followed by the actions of CAT and GPX. In fact, SOD is effective only if followed by the actions of CAT and GPX, because when SOD removes superoxide radicals, it generates hydrogen peroxide and oxygen radicals. These, in turn, require the "defusing" actions of CAT and GPX.8 And so it goes . . . . What is the price of neuropreservation? A good neurodefense system, provided by a solid SWAT team of these free-radical-scavenging enzymes.
This brings us back to the current study, in which an extract of Bacopa was found to increase SOD, CAT, and GPX activities significantly throughout all the brain regions examined. After only seven days of treatment, there were no significant increases in the measured antioxidants, suggesting that the memory benefits associated with oxidative stress relief are delayed. These results are consistent with some other Bacopa studies in which it took several weeks or more to reverse memory deficits.4 The fact that deprenyl has never been shown clearly to cause memory enhancement is thought to follow from its apparent inactivity in the hippocampus of the brain, unlike Bacopa. However, Bacopa has been shown in at least one study to possess possible antiaging benefits, just as has deprenyl, perhaps owing to their common ability to alleviate oxidative stress in the striatal area of the brain.10
The Bacopa studies involving young animals or young humans have characteristically shown rapid results compared with older animals or humans. In this context, this makes sense, given what we know about the age-related decline of antioxidant enzymes.
In studies with children, Bacopa enhanced speed and accuracy in solving maze problems. It is interesting to note that these improvements had the effect of revitalizing the children's sense of themselves. This led to a greater propensity to opt for novelty by choosing to explore new material, objects, and experiences, in preference to what they already knew.
HOW BACOPA MAY EXTEND LIFE
In terms of what we make of ourselves in this world, curiosity, far from "killing the cat," often determines much of the pleasure we experience in the learning process, and consequently how much we retain. Three thousand years of use suggest that Bacopa has much to be said for it, not the least of which may be its ability to spur our motivation, spark our attention, ignite our arousal, and draw us into the fire of novelty.
It is propitious that, independently, researchers have found exploratory behavior to be related to lifespan.11 This appears to be true in the sense that people who remain interested in life seem to live longer, as well as get more out of it. They add life to their years as well as years to their life. And now we have an explanation of why this may be true. A stronger intellect and desire to explore may reflect a stronger antioxidant defense system, which may result in longer life. Bacopa may be one of the best ways to find out whether this is true.
Superintelligent mice have been found to prefer novelty.
- Bhattacharya SK, Bhattacharya A, Kumar A, Ghosal S. Antioxidant activity of Bacopa monniera in rat frontal cortex, striatum and hippocampus. Phytother Res 2000 May;14(3):174-9.
- Kitani K, Kanai S, Ivy GO, Carrillo MC. Assessing the effects of deprenyl on longevity and antioxidant defenses in different animal models. Ann NY Acad Sci 1998 Nov 20;854:291-306.
- Maruyama W, Naoi M. Neuroprotection by (-)-deprenyl and related compounds. Mech Ageing Dev 1999 Nov;111(2-3):189-200.
- Bhattacharya SK, Kumar A, Ghosal S. Effect of Bacopa monniera on animal models of Alzheimer's disease and perturbed central cholinergic markers of cognition in rats. In Molecular Aspects of Asian Medicines, ed. by D. V. Silva Sankar. PJD Publications, New York (in press).
- Smith G. Animal models of Alzheimer's disease: experimental cholinergic denervation. Brain Res 1988 Apr-Jun;472(2):103-18.
- Halliwell B, Gutteridge JM. Oxygen free radicals and the nervous system. Trends Neurosci 1985;9:22-8.
- Glover V, Sandler M. Neurotoxins and monoamine oxidase B inhibitors: possible mechanisms for the neuroprotective effect of (-)-deprenyl. In Inhibitors of Monoamine Oxidase B, Pharmacology and Clinical Use In Neurodegenerative Disorders, ed. by I. Szelenyi, pp. 168-82. Birkhauser Verlag, Basel, 1993.
- Harman D. The aging process: major risk factor for disease and death. Proc Natl Acad Sci 1991 Jun 15;88(12):5360-3.
- Maxwell SRJ. Prospects for the use of antioxidant therapies. Drugs 1995;49:345-61.
- Chunekar KC. Bhav Prakasa Nighantu (Hindi translation). Chaukhambha Publications, Varanasi, 1960.
- Mayes LC. Exploring internal and external worlds. Reflections on being curious. Psychoanal Study Child 1991;46:3-36.