Could an Indian herb or an extract from the bark of a French pine tree help keep our brains in good nick as we age? Melbourne researcher Professor Con Stough of Swinburne University’s Centre for Human Psychopharmacology has his fingers crossed. He’s leading a government funded study to see if these supplements improve cognition in 500 healthy over 65s.
One group will take Bacopa monniera (also called brahmi), a herb used in traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine for improving memory. Although this study is focussed on older brains, earlier research has shown improvement in cognition in younger people, Stough says, and the Centre will soon begin a trial of Bacopa with children with ADHD in Australia and India.
“We’re starting to get good evidence that Bacopa is helpful for the brain. Unlike drugs which tend to have a potent but single action, herbs often have multiple actions and we think Bacopa does a few different things. It has a strong antioxidant effect which may help remove the beta-amyloid plaques thought to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. It also has a strong anti-inflammatory effect and appears to improve blood flow to the brain.”
A second group in the Swinburne study will be taking Pycnogenol, a patented extract from the bark of French maritime pine found to improve working memory in a pilot study of 100 healthy 60 to 85-year-olds.
“It’s not clear how Pycnogenol works, but one theory is that it’s by improving blood flow to the brain,” Stough says.
The ability to boost the brain’s blood supply also made another herb, Gingko biloba, look promising for heading off memory loss, but research results with gingko for preventing Alzheimer’s have been disappointing, although there’s some evidence that it’s helpful for treating dementia and improving cognition in younger people, he adds.
The Swinburne study will also try to find out if extra B vitamins can help older brains - a third group in the study is taking a supplement that combines B vitamins with other nutrients.
“As we get older our levels of B vitamins diminish, although it’s not clear whether this is an effect of ageing, diet or both, but a British study from Cambridge University showed that vitamin B12 improved brain shrinkage,” he explains. “There’s also emerging evidence that vitamins B6 and B12 may help reduce blood levels of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.”
But before we dash to the health food store to load up on brain pills, there are things to consider. For one, more research needs doing to confirm if these supplements work. It’s also hard for consumers to know which products might be effective because the quality of herbal medicines in Australia is so variable, Stough points out - while there are many products containing Bacopa, for instance, only a few have been studied. These include a Bacopa extract manufactured by Flordis, the subject of the Swinburne research, and another Bacopa product made by Natural Remedies found to improve memory in older people in a study at Southern Cross University.
Just because complementary medicines are registered with the Australian Government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration is no guarantee that a product works either. Although manufacturers must prove to the TGA that their products are safe they don’t have to prove that they actually work.
But whatever turns out to prevent dementia, it’s likely to be something that’s needed earlier rather than later.
“The brain changes that lead to dementia can start decades before there are signs of memory loss which means much of the damage has already been done,” says Stough.
Whatever turns out to prevent dementia, it’s likely to be something that’s needed earlier rather than later
This sounds like a reason for taking the advice of Brain Matters, Alzheimer’s Australia’s brain health program that stresses the need to take steps to fight dementia as early as middle age - measures like being physically active and keeping blood pressure healthy are a good start.
What are you doing to keep your brain in good shape?