There have been some trends in the last year or two towards Nootropics, supplements catered to brain health and enhancement. It is a field of research based in preventing cognitive decline in the elderly and perhaps reversing or alleviating some disease states (Alzheimer’s, Dementia, etc.) that youth and the healthy have been looking into hoping they can get smarter. It’s an interesting field, but one that is liable to get hyped through the roof (you cannot placebo yourself into gaining muscle, you can placebo yourself into getting smarter or mistakenly believe you are smarter; many nootropics sold in the future might not even be bioactive due to this).
There have been some herbs traditionally used for brain boosting, particularly in Ayurveda (a branch of Indian medicine). Some have been researched fairly well already, and Bacopa Monnieri (BM) is the premiere brain-boosting herb at this moment in time.
Does it work
Yes, apparently. On Examine if you click ‘Human Trials’ right below the short summary at the top you will be brought to our rubric. 8 trials have been conducted in humans with Bacopa, and the results so far suggest:
- It increases working memory, possibly through better retention of information (acquisition)
- This increase in working memory and acquisition extends to long-term memory
- It may increase cognition, but the aspects of cognition it increases (focus, attention, etc.) all have 1-2 studies behind them and are not as reliably shown as memory is
- It exerts anxiety-reducing and anti-depressive effects, but not as much research into these are memory
It is rare for a herb to both be touted to increase memory, and have this much literature behind it. The success rate for trials is pretty astounding as well, with only one study coming back null; this study was conducted for less than 2 weeks, and in assessing human and rat studies as well as mechanisms it appears 3-4 weeks or more are required.
So yes, Bacopa Monnieri appears to increase memory in double blinded human trials; this discovery has been replicated numerous times.
How does it work?
Before I begin, the exact mechanism is not fully proven yet. Supplements tend to act on something, and to prove this is the area of effect you would run a test in mice or rats who lack this something and hope that the supplement no longer works (ie. To prove metformin works on AMPK, you would delete AMPK from a rat’s genetic code with a virus; if metformin no longer works at all, you just proved how it works).
We know Bacopa is able to ‘induce dendritic proliferation’ (sound sexy, will explain what that means next), but since we don’t know how Bacopa does this, we can’t really prove this is the mechanism. It just seems most likely right now.
Anywho, assuming the induction of dendritic proliferation is the key; here is a picture of a neuron (brain cell).
The ‘soma’ is the cell body where the fancy metabolic interactions and the nuclei exist, the axon is basically its tail. The ‘hairs’ on both ends merely release (the terminal buds) or detect (dendrites) signalling molecules so one neuron can interact with each other; you can put tons of neuron terminal buds to dendrites like some dominos with fractal patterns.
Bacopa Monnieri appears to give the cell body more hair, and thus enables it to better receive input from other cells. With a better chance of receiving input, it is more likely that a memory map will be formed (memory map is a pattern of neuron firing which seems to replicate a certain memory; tied in somehow to the physical embodiment of a memory, but I am venturing out of my expertise here).
It appears this process takes time, as it can take up to 4 weeks to work. The anxiety and depression reducing effects appear to be mediated by something else, and work fairly quickly.
Beyond that, Bacopa just has the general ‘protects neurons from death, chelates minerals to reduce oxidation in the brain, protects the brain from mercury, potent anti-oxidant’ stuff that is rather uneventful (lots of things do these), and in line with being a swamp growing herb, it tastes pretty damn bad; wet grass with a 5% mud content would be a compliment.
- Bacopa Monnieri is a herb traditionally used as a brain tonic (yay for vague terminology!) in Ayurveda, and apparently is good enough to be the second most praised herb used; second only to Ashwagandha
- It is touted to improve memory
- It has been repeatedly demonstrated to improve memory
- Anecdotes say it reduces anxiety and depression, animal models agree, limited human studies also agree
- The mechanism, or the closest we have to one right now, appears to take time to work
- Anxiety and Depression reductions are independent, and should work quickly
- Highly recommended for cognitive enhancement, especially if stressed
- Tastes bad