Bacopa May Help Your Brain Cope with Stress

Chill out with Bacopa monniera extract

Bacopa May Help Your
Brain Cope with Stress

Ancient Ayurvedic herb is already known to enhance memory function
By Aaron W. Jensen, Ph.D.

ave you ever noticed that even as we try to simplify our everyday lives, our stress levels continue to escalate? Maybe that’s because our fast-paced lifestyles are inundated with mundane but insistent tasks—car repairs, grocery shopping, mowing the lawn, visiting the gym, kids’ piano lessons and soccer practice, cooking the evening meal, doctor and dentist appointments . . . . The list of things we need to accomplish daily seems endless. Each task takes a certain amount of time and patience—and when you’re running low on both of those, daily life can be mighty stressful. Some days are worse than others. Some days, in fact, you just want to holler, “Calgon, Take Me Away!”*


*That’s an ad slogan, for those of you who may be pop-culture-challenged.


Stress Is Inescapable

The stresses that engulf us take different forms. The most common and significant ones are physical, social, and work-related stresses, but other factors also contribute to our daily stress levels, such as noise, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Even solar ultraviolet radiation, environmental toxins (both chemical and biological), and air pollution can raise your stress levels. One thing is for certain: sources of stress are everywhere. So it’s not surprising that your body has developed mechanisms for coping with it.

When you’re overly stressed, your immune system becomes compromised, your body’s functions become less efficient, and your mental faculties begin to falter. Fortunately, however, your cells have built-in coping mechanisms that are activated at such times. These processes are mediated by the synthesis of special proteins—those endlessly versatile molecular workhorses of the cell—to mobilize an effective and protective response. (For more on this topic, see the sidebar.)

Studying Stress with Molecular Chaperones

How do you study stress in a single cell in the laboratory? Do you look for the little guy to wipe the sweat off his brow? Bite his lip in concentration? Throw his hands up in despair? If only there were such telltale signs, science would be a whole lot easier. Sadly, these clues don’t exist in the molecular world, so scientists have had to devise other methods to study the stress response in cells.

The classic method used to induce a stress response in cells is to expose them to excess heat—but not too much, just a couple of degrees does the trick—a process called heat shock. Shocking cells with heat (or other stressors, such as cold, salt, toxins, or a variety of hormones) causes the cells to increase their production of a specific set of proteins, inventively called heat-shock proteins. But how does this help the cell survive stress?

Some heat-shock proteins are called chaperonins, a term that hints at their function as molecular “chaperones.” In this role, they help other proteins in the cell to maintain their normal structure (which is typically very complex owing to the intricate folding of the long chain of amino acids the protein is composed of). Heat and other stressors can cause proteins to denature, which means that they lose their normal shape through an unfolding of the chain. If this happens, the proteins also lose their normal function, which is critically dependent on their shape, and they are ultimately degraded in the cell.

Chaperonins help denatured proteins to fold back into their normal shape and will even help to refold misshapen proteins. In so doing, they restore functionality to the proteins, many of which are enzymes with critical tasks to perform. Chaperonins thus help cells to survive under stressful conditions and allow them to participate in normal metabolism, growth, and maturation.

Bacopa Activates Antistress Response

Scientists have long sought to understand the biological mechanisms that help you cope with stress and to develop, if possible, ways in which you can prompt your body to deal preemptively with the trials and tribulations of everyday life. One exciting development in this area of research centers on the Indian herb Bacopa monniera. Animal research shows that this herb, which is found in wet, marshy areas throughout India, appears to prime the stress-coping response in cells throughout the brain.

Traditional healing manuals from the ancient practice of Ayurvedic medicine in India reveal that Bacopa has long been used as a memory enhancer and anti-inflammatory agent. It has also been used to treat blood and kidney disorders, as well as to reduce fever. Current research has focused on the role that Bacopa plays in reducing stress, and a group of Indian researchers has recently demonstrated that it activates an antistress response in animals through the regulation of gene expression, the process that governs protein synthesis.1

How to Stress a Rat

The researchers isolated the principal active ingredients of Bacopa—chemical compounds called bacoside A and bacoside B—from the root of the plant and administered them to male rats that were then exposed to stress. They used doses of 20 mg and 40 mg per kg of body weight, which correspond to 1500 mg and 3000 mg, respectively, for a 75-kg (165-lb) human. Because rats are not subject to the same types of stress that we are—they don’t have auto accidents, e.g., or a boss standing over them demanding a final report by the end of the day—the researchers exposed them to stress in the form of physical restraint in a cold chamber (41ºF) at a low oxygen level (equivalent to an altitude of 15,000 ft).

One group of rats was pretreated with Bacopa for 7 days before exposure to the stress, and a control group was stressed similarly, but without the Bacopa pretreatment. After about 2 hours of the stress, when the animals’ core temperature had dropped to about 73ºF, they were removed and immediately decapitated so that the levels of certain stress-response proteins could be measured in different regions of their brains.

Antistress Proteins Perform Vital Functions

The proteins of interest were heat-shock protein 70 (Hsp70), two cytochrome P450 enzymes (EROD and PROD),* and the enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD). These names may not roll trippingly off the tongue, but the molecules perform some very important functions. Hsp70 helps cellular proteins retain or regain their normal structure so that they remain functional. P450 enzymes, such as EROD and PROD, protect the body from certain toxins by converting them to less harmful compounds. And SOD dismantles especially destructive free radicals called superoxides, converting them to harmless organic compounds plus oxygen and hydrogen peroxide (the latter is inactivated by another enzyme, glutathione peroxidase, by conversion to water and oxygen).


*EROD stands for 7-ethoxyresorufin-O-deethylase, and PROD stands for 7-pentoxyresorufin-O-dealkylase. If you’re a chemist, these names tell you something about their specific functions. If not, however, just think of them as important detoxification enzymes.


Antistress Activities of Bacopa

In response to stress, the levels of Hsp70 normally increase in all regions of the brain. In stressed animals that had been pretreated with Bacopa for 7 days, however, the increase in Hsp70 levels was significantly less than normal in certain regions of the brain, notably the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus (a region of the brain that plays a central role in memory processes). What does this mean? By producing less Hsp70 in response to stress, those regions of the brain were indicating that the Bacopa had somehow made them less susceptible to stress. In effect, the Bacopa tended to keep those regions of the brain in a relatively nonstressed state even in the presence of stress.

Bacopa had a different impact on the levels of the two P450 enzymes. In rats treated with Bacopa but not exposed to stress, the levels of EROD and PROD increased throughout the entire brain (although the increase in EROD activity in the hippocampus was not statistically significant). This suggests that Bacopa tended to “prime” the brain for stress—in essence, the brain stockpiled these protective enzymes so that it could better deal with stress when it arose. Increased levels of the enzymes occurred most dramatically in the cerebral cortex following Bacopa treatment.


Bacopa somehow made those
regions of the brain less
susceptible to stress. In effect,
it kept them in a relatively
nonstressed state even in
the presence of stress.


The data pertaining to SOD were more difficult to interpret, because the factors affecting SOD levels and activity in brain tissue are more complicated, and they vary in different regions of the brain even under normal conditions. Nevertheless, the researchers were able to conclude that Bacopa treatment also has a positive effect on SOD activity in the brain. In their words, “. . . Bacopa helps in coping with the combined hypoxic, hypothermic, and immobilization stress, which could lead to an onslaught of free radicals.” Put in simpler terms, Bacopa treatment modulates SOD activity and prepares tissues to weather attacks by free radicals that may otherwise cause a great deal of damage to the brain’s neurons.

Bacopa Protects Certain Parts of the Brain

The Indian research suggests that Bacopa has protective benefits on select regions of the brain. But why is this important? Researchers have known for a long time that specific functions reside in specific regions of the brain. For example, the largest part of the brain, the cerebrum, is divided into two hemispheres—the right and the left—and controls many different functions. The left hemisphere controls speech, reading, writing, logic, and movement on the right side of the body. The right hemisphere is associated with creative and artistic abilities and coordinates movement on the left side of the body.* The hippocampus, on the other hand, is involved in various “executive” skills, such as learning, memory, and general cognition.


*This helps explain the terms right-brain and left-brain: in general, artists can be termed “right-brainers,” while strategists (of all sorts) rely on their powerful left brains. It also explains why stroke victims may lose muscle control and movement on only one side of their body: whichever hemisphere is damaged will affect movement on the opposite side of the body.


The fact that Bacopa selectively protects regions of the brain associated with memory and learning is not surprising if you consider that this herb has long been used as a memory enhancer in Ayurvedic medicine, which dates back over 2500 years. This healing tradition places particular importance on the restorative properties of Bacopa. Western medicine is warming to this herb as well, and a growing number of clinical trials support its memory-enhancing effect.

Bacopa Enhances Learning and Memory

One particularly important study on Bacopa was performed in Australia, using neuropsychological testing.2 These tests measure a number of different cognitive skills, such as attention, memory consolidation, short-term memory, problem solving, decision making, information processing, and verbal learning. In all, 16 well-validated tests were administered to 46 healthy adult subjects, starting at the outset of the study to establish baseline levels for each individual. Each participant was given 150 mg of Bacopa extract (equivalent to 3 g of the dried herb) twice daily (300 mg/day total) for 12 weeks. Neuropsychological performance was measured again at 5 weeks and 12 weeks.

The results demonstrated that Bacopa significantly improved performance on specific tests, most notably those dealing with information processing, verbal learning, and memory consolidation. The authors concluded that Bacopa improves cognitive processes that depend on environmental input and is especially important in learning and memory.

Bacopa for Good Brain Health

One of the most significant challenges to the health of individual brain cells comes in the form of oxidative stress. Despite its relatively small size, the brain consumes about 20% of all the oxygen that is taken into the body in order to help power its many activities. Owing to this gluttonous oxygen consumption, the brain is exposed to very high levels of oxidative stress in the form of free radicals, which can do a great deal of damage to the brain’s sensitive neurons in very little time.


The authors concluded that Bacopa
improves cognitive processes that
depend on environmental input
and is especially important in
learning and memory.


Since Bacopa arms our neurons with stress-protection mechanisms that boost the levels of protective proteins, this ancient herb may offer a strong defense against the ravages of oxidative stress. In these stressful times, that sounds like a good recipe for protecting and enhancing brain function. In a sense, you can think of Bacopa as a restorative trip to the spa for the brain. What could be better?

References

  1. Chowdhuri DK, Parmar D, Kakkar P, Shukla R, Seth PK, Srimal RC. Antistress effects of bacosides of Bacopa monnieri: modulation of Hsp70 expression, superoxide dismutase and cytochrome P450 activity in rat brain. Phytother Res 2002;16:639-45.
  2. Stough C, Lloyd J, Clarke J, Downey LA, Hutchison CW, Rodgers T, Nathan PJ. The chronic effects of an extract of Bacopa monniera (Brahmi) on cognitive function in healthy human subjects. Psychopharmacology 2001;156:481-4.


Dr. Jensen is a cell biologist who has conducted research in England, Germany, and the United States. He has taught college courses in biology and nutrition and has written extensively on medical and scientific topics.

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