Brain boosting plants

Could an Indian herb or an extract from the bark of a French pine tree help keep our brains in good nick? Melbourne researcher Con Stough, of Swinburne University's Centre for Human Psychopharmacology, has his fingers crossed. He is leading a government-funded study to see if these supplements improve cognition in 500 healthy people aged over 65.

One group will take Bacopa monniera (also called brahmi), a herb used in traditional Indian ayurvedic medicine for improving memory. Although this study is focused on older brains, earlier research has shown improvement in cognition in younger people, Stough says. The centre will soon begin a trial of Bacopa involving children with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder in Australia and India.

''We're starting to get good evidence that Bacopa is helpful for the brain,'' he says. ''Unlike drugs that 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 take Pycnogenol, a patented extract from the bark of a French maritime pine found to improve working memory in a pilot study of 100 healthy people between the ages of 60 and 85. ''It's not clear how Pycnogenol works, but one theory is that it is by improving blood flow to the brain,'' Stough says.

The ability to boost the brain's blood supply made another herb, Gingko biloba, look promising for warding off memory loss, but research results for preventing Alzheimer's have been disappointing. However, there is evidence the herb is helpful for treating dementia and improving cognition in younger people.

The Swinburne study also aims 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,'' Stough says. ''There is 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 shop to load up on brain pills, there are things to consider. For a start, more research is needed 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 says. While many products contain 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 Southern Cross University study.

Just because complementary medicines are registered with the government's Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is no guarantee a product works. Manufacturers must prove to the TGA their products are safe, but not that they work. If anything is proven to prevent dementia, it's likely it needs to be taken earlier, rather than later.

See yourbrainmatters.org.au.

Paula Goodyer blogs at smh.com.au/chewonthis

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