Bacopa Combats Memory Loss Against the Odds
Even When Bacopa Was Used With a Drug that Impairs Cognitive Function, it Helped to Restore and Maintain Memory

God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.
- J. M. Barrie

What is life without the ability to learn new things and remember them, as well as to see again and again, in our mind's eye, the rich tapestry of things we learned long ago? Whether it's a technical concept, a favorite recipe, a catchy song, a great joke, or the finer points of hanging chads, we want to be able to absorb it and keep it in memory forever.

As life exerts its wear and tear on our body, however, so too does it gradually, insidiously dull the razor’s edge of our mind, turning that finely honed instrument into a rusty clunker that can no longer find its way out of the thicket of weeds that are slowly clogging up the marsh near my house . . . uh, wait a minute . . . where was I?

Oh, yes, mental acuity. We can’t take it for granted for a minute, let alone a lifetime. To stay on top of our game as best we can for as long as we can, we must fight the fading of the intellectual light every way we can. That means, for starters, eating well and getting plenty of exercise, mental as well as physical. With the mind, just as with the muscles, it's "use it or lose it."

Did you know, by the way, that physical exercise, not just mental exercise, helps to maintain mental acuity? It's the flip side of our mind's ability to help maintain our physical health just by thinking positively about it. Everything is profoundly interrelated in the "ecology" of our self.

So walk or run or dance or swim or do whatever you can do. And read books, play games, solve puzzles, and think about things that challenge your complacency. And (you saw this coming, didn't you?) take supplements that can help restore some of the edge to that once-gleaming mental razor of yours. One of the most effective such supplements is the Indian herb Bacopa monniera, as we will see below.

Here's a puzzle for you: why is it that many people think nothing of taking vitamins and minerals for their bodily health, yet are suspicious or fearful of the idea of taking supplements that could improve their mental health? (By "mental health" we don't mean sanity, of course, but rather cognitive function: the ability to learn, remember, and process information so as to gain knowledge and have enjoyable experiences - or just to remember how to play the games our grandchildren beg us to play with them.) What is so different about our mind that we shrink from the idea of improving it through supplementation?

Even a passing familiarity with human physiology teaches us that the brain - the most complex physical object in the known universe - is every bit as rooted in biochemical and biophysical processes in its functioning as are the heart, liver, gallbladder, and everything else in the body, down to the lowliest cell. Granted, the mind (the brain's "output," if you will) is a uniquely fantastic phenomenon, seemingly removed from the constraints of the laws of nature. But according to all the scientific knowledge we have ever gained about ourselves, what is it that produces every single thought and feeling and emotion that collectively constitute this wonder of wonders?

Chemical reactions. Reactions involving molecules that exist in the foods we eat and molecules produced from them by cellular metabolism are the driving force behind every aspect of mental activity. Even our feelings of romantic love have been linked to a particular molecule, phenylethylamine. Without a steady stream of the right kinds of molecules - not just oxygen, but nutrient molecules that allow the neurons to remain healthy and communicate effectively with each other through chemical reactions at the neuronal synapses - our brains wither: our stream of consciousness runs dry, and we die. (For more on this theme, see the article Memory Enhancement Therapy - Jan. 2001.)

Beneficial molecules are found not just in the foods we eat, however, but also in many plants we do not eat: the so-called medicinal plants that have eased - and undoubtedly often lengthened - the lives of people all over the world for thousands of years. Among the great but largely unheralded discoveries of the ancients is that some medicinal plants can do more than just heal our wounds and cure our stomachaches. They can help maintain or even improve our cognitive functions.

In India, the perennial, creeping marsh herb Bacopa monniera (also called Brahmi) has been valued for just such a purpose for 3000 years or more. Recent scientific evidence has substantiated the traditional wisdom of Ayurvedic medical practice in that culture: that Bacopa helps people have sharper minds. It improves memory, increases learning and retention, and enhances exploratory behavior (in children), among numerous other benefits. (See Revitalize Your Intellect - Mar. 2000, as well as Bacopa May Help You Learn Faster - Jun. 2000 and Remember Not to Forget - Aug. 2000.)

That Bacopa has these capabilities under ordinary conditions is remarkable enough, but it is doubly remarkable that it can fight back against a stacked deck, so to speak. The deck in question is stacked by the commonly prescribed antiepileptic drug phenytoin, which is very effective as an anticonvulsant but has the unfortunate side effect of impairing cognitive function, specifically, learning and memory.* So the price the patient pays for freedom from seizures is to become a bit duller upstairs. But this need not be so.

* In a recent book about President Richard Nixon, Jack Dreyfus, author of a book (A Remarkable Medicine Has Been Overlooked) about phenytoin, is alleged to have introduced Nixon to this drug. If indeed this did occur, and the phenytoin affected Nixon's memory, one can only wonder what might have happened if Dreyfus had also introduced him to Bacopa.

It is common in medical practice to prescribe - or to have to prescribe - two drugs at the same time for a given condition: the first drug to treat the condition itself, and the second drug to counteract the deleterious side effects of the first. A well-known example is hydrochlorothiazide (a diuretic) for hypertension. Because this drug induces the loss of potassium, the patient must supplement with potassium in order to stay well and enjoy normal blood pressure.

In a study recently published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, researchers in India set out to determine the probable efficacy of Bacopa in counteracting the adverse effects of phenytoin on cognitive function in patients with epilepsy.1 The problem posed by this aspect of phenytoin therapy is exacerbated by the fact that cognitive deficits can also be caused by the disease itself - a double whammy.

The researchers chose to evaluate Bacopa not just because of its excellent reputation as a cognitive enhancer but also because it is known to be well tolerated in long-term use, with no significant toxicity or side effects of its own. This is a particularly important consideration for epileptics, whose treatment regimen may last a lifetime. Thus, both the primary drug and any counteracting drug or supplement must be benign enough to be tolerated for many years.

The study was conducted on laboratory mice, for which there are a number of well-established objective tests of cognitive function that make them easier subjects to evaluate than human beings. One such test is the passive avoidance task, which is widely used in screening drugs that affect learning and memory. In the version of this test used here, an inverted petri dish was placed in the middle of a floor surface containing an electrified grid capable of delivering a painful but harmless shock to a mouse. The objective was to measure: (1) how long it took the mouse to learn not to step off the "shock-free zone" of the petri dish, and (2) how well the mouse remembered this valuable lesson 2 hours and 24 hours later, when it was again placed on the petri dish.

A Bacopa monniera extract was administered orally, both alone and in combination with phenytoin. Bacopa was administered 1 hour before the testing, and phenytoin 2 hours before. These intervals correspond to the reported times of peak action of the two substances following oral administration. The amounts of each substance given were chosen to reflect their effectiveness based on prior knowledge obtained in animal studies.

In the combination study, the anticonvulsant (but memory-impairing) dose of phenytoin was administered daily for 2 weeks, and the memory-enhancing dose of Bacopa was administered along with the phenytoin during the second week. The results were very favorable. In the authors' words: “The results of the present study show that phenytoin (PHT) . . . when administered for 14 days, adversely affects cognitive function in the passive avoidance task in mice. . . . Bacopa monniera (BM) extract, when given along with PHT in the second week of the 2-week regimen, significantly reversed PHT-induced impairment both on acquisition and retention [of the learned behavior]." They went on to say that Bacopa had no effect on the anticonvulsant properties of phenytoin. (It is interesting to note that Bacopa has been shown to have anticonvulsant properties of its own, at somewhat higher dosages than those used in the present study.2)

Well, that's fine, you might say, but those were mice, and anyway, I don't have epilepsy. Yes, they were mice, but mice (which are so like us in so many ways that they might as well be tiny, furry people) are the source of much of what we know about pharmacology. We owe them a great deal. And it’s not necessary to have epilepsy to benefit from Bacopa. The lesson we have learned from this study is that Bacopa is so effective in helping to restore and maintain cognitive function that it can even combat the actions of a drug that suppresses it - and that's impressive.


  1. Vohora D, Pal SN, Pillai KK. Protection from phenytoin-induced cognitive deficit by Bacopa monniera, a reputed Indian nootropic plant. J Ethnopharmacol 2000;71:383-90.
  2. Singh HK, Shanker G, Patnaik GK. Neuropharmacological and anti-stress effects of bacosides: a memory enhancer. Indian J Pharmacol 1996;28:47.

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