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Bacopa and Memory
Bacopa or Brahmi is an herb with strong roots in Ayurveda traditional medicine. Among its other uses, it was known to enhance memory and this belief has been confirmed in multiple studies. So, how does bacopa work and is it safe? Read on to find out.
Bacopa is a perennial, creeping herb also known as Brahmi and Water hyssop. Its scientific name is Bacopa monnieri.
Although it is native to the marshy areas of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, China and Vietnam, bacopa is also grown in the wetlands of Southern US as well as Hawaii and Florida.
Bacopa is an important remedy in Ayurveda medicine. In that practice of traditional medicine, the herb is used to treat a number of diseases including ulcers, epilepsy, asthma, inflammations, tumors, anemia, leprosy and enlarged spleen. It is also used as a memory enhancer.
The phytochemicals present in bacopa include alkaloids, saponins, flavonoids, stigmasterol, beta sitosterol and bacopasaponins.
These compounds give bacopa its medicinal properties. For example, bacoside A, a bacosaponin, is responsible for most of the antioxidant effects of bacopa. This compound improves the activities of some antioxidant enzymes (superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione peroxidase) naturally produced in the body.
Other active ingredients of the herbs such as the polyphenol compounds are also known to confer antioxidant properties.
The polyphenols, for example, cut off the chain reaction of oxidative stress in the body by mopping up reactive oxygen species, neutralizing toxic metallic ions and inhibiting the enzyme that produces harmful free radicals from lipid metabolism.
The combination of these antioxidant properties is believed to be responsible for the ability of bacopa extract to improve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease by removing the beta amyloid proteins deposited on neurons in the brain.
Various studies done with animal models indicate the bacopa extracts are effective for increasing memory capacity and for reversing cognitive decline in the elderly.
Besides its effect on cognition, bacopa can also increase the production of immunoglobulins and regulate the production of antibodies. Therefore, this herb can improve the functioning of the immune system.
However, bacopa is not without its side effects. It is known to reduce heart rate and increase secretions in stomach, intestines and urinary tract. These side effects are usually mild and should only cause mild gastrointestinal discomfort. Bacopa can also cause dry mouth and muscle fatigue.
Still, bacopa should be used with caution by those who have ulcers and urinary tract problems.
In addition, bacopa enhances the effect of a group of antihypertensive drugs known as calcium-channel blockers. Therefore, where both drugs are to be used, the dose of the antihypertensive drug should be reduced.
Given that the root of bacopa is in Ayurveda medicine, India seems the perfect place to start investigating the efficacy of the herb as a memory enhancer.
A double-blind, randomized study done by clinicians of the Department of Pediatrics, BRD Medical College, Gorakpur, India involved 36 ADHD children aged between 8 and 10 years. 19 of these children were given 50 mg of bacopa extract twice daily while 17 received a placebo.
After 12 weeks of treatment, a 4-week washout period was allowed before the children were given some specialized cognition tests. The results showed that the 19 children in the bacopa group improved significantly in tests assessing logical memory and pair-associative learning.
This test not only demonstrates that bacopa can improve learning but also that it has a lasting effect on memory.
A similar study was done in Australia but this time on adults.
The 46 participants recruited for this study were aged between 18 and 60. They were divided into 2 groups; the participants in one group were given 300 mg of bacopa daily for the duration of the study while the other group received placebo.
The researchers assessed each participant’s performance in tests of verbal learning, information processing and memory. This was done before the study and also at the 5th week and 12th week (the end of the study).
The result showed that the bacopa group outperformed the placebo in all tests.
In a 2008 study published in the journal, Phytotherapy Research, further confirmed the ability of bacopa as a memory enhancer. In this study, the participants were given placebo or 150 mg of KeenMind (a special extract of Bacopa) twice daily for 90 days.
The result of the 62 participants who concluded the study showed that the bacopa supplementation was able to improve memory especially the accuracy of spatial memory and also visual information processing.
Another study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2010 confirmed the same benefits for older patients.
This Australian study recruited 98 subjects who were 55 years or older. This group was divided into 2 groups. One group received placebo while the other got 300 mg of BacoMind (an extract of bacopa) per day.
At the end of the study, the bacopa group scored better than the placebo group and exceed their scores before the study in audioverbal and visual memory performance tests. More specifically, bacopa improved the acquisition, storage and retrieval of memories in those who took it regularly for the duration of the trial.
The reported side effects were only mild and include nausea, abdominal cramps and diarrhea.
A study similar to this was done in the US. Like the study discussed above, this 2008 study involved elderly volunteers (aged 65 and older). The study which was published in the same journal investigated the effect of bacopa extract on cognitive performance, depression and anxiety among the elderly.
The 48 participants who completed the study were placed into 2 groups. While one group got placebo, the participants in the drug group received 300 mg per day of standardized bacopa extract.
After 12 weeks of the study, the result showed that bacopa safely improved memory and cognition among the elderly. However, it only had a mild effect on anxiety and no effects on depression.
A similar study was published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry in 2006.
This study also investigated the effect of bacopa on age-related memory impairment but did not test for mood and anxiety.
The participants in this study were given either a placebo or 125 mg of standardized bacopa extract twice daily for 12 weeks. Another 4 weeks of washout period was allowed after this. During this period, the participants only received placebos.
Of the cognition tests given, the bacopa group especially excelled in logical memory, mental control and paired associated learning.
A 2001 study published in the journal, Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, detailed the effect of bacopa on cognitive functioning in healthy human subjects.
In this double-blind study, a group of healthy individuals were divided into 2 groups. One group received placebo while the other received 300 mg of bacopa extracts. Two hours after dosing, the study participants were given neuropsychological tests just as they were before taking bacopa or placebo.
The results showed that there were no significant changes in each individual’s scores before and after receiving either bacopa or placebo. This study shows that bacopa has no acute effect on cognitive functioning in healthy subjects.
The importance of this study rests on the fact that it shows that bacopa does not improve memory by simply dialing up a factor in the brain. If that were so, the neuropsychological tests of bacopa group should show clear improvements.
This means that the mechanism of action of bacopa is corrective and that it is most needed by those suffering from cognitive impairment and memory loss.
For people who have none of this disorders, bacopa is safe, well-tolerated and does not produce excessive stimulation of the memory centers of the brain.
Still the most in-depth work on bacopa and its effects on the brain are done by Indian scientists who driven by the legacy of this Ayurvedic remedy.
In a study published in the journal, Phytotherapy Research, Indian researchers were able to provide evidence for the antioxidant effect of bacopa on the hippocampus in rats. Given that the hippocampus is one of the parts of the brain dedicated to memory and learning, it is clear to see how bacopa may improve memory and cognition.
By protecting the neurons and neurotransmitter pathways passing through the hippocampus, bacopa can help preserve their integrity and even reverse cognitive decline.
It is clear that reactive oxygen species, free radicals and harmful proteins such as beta amyloids can destroy nerve cells and interfere with signal transmission in the brain.
When these destructive toxins affect the hippocampus and other memory seats of the brain, they can start the neurological degeneration that later presents as memory loss and cognitive decline.
To prevent this destruction, the body needs antioxidants to neutralize and remove these harmful compounds. Bacopa easily supplies such antioxidants. In fact, given the number of potent antioxidants present in bacopa, it is no wonder that it has such dramatic results in every one of the studies investigating its efficacy in preventing and reversing cognitive decline.
Furthermore, this antioxidant effect explains why bacopa does not affect memory and cognitive performance in healthy subjects. Where there is no sign of cognitive decline caused by damage to the hippocampus, bacopa cannot improve on a normal situation.
A 1996 paper published in the Indian Journal of Experimental Biology tries to explain the mechanism behind the antioxidant properties of bacopa.
Among other things, the authors of this paper believed that the antioxidant compounds in bacopa work in multiple pathways.
When compared to known antioxidants such as vitamin E (natural) and EDTA (synthetic), bacopa extract performed similarly to them. It was able to chelate reactive metal ions (like EDTA) and break the chain reaction that produce free radicals during lipid peroxidation (like vitamin E).
The paper concluded that under experimental conditions, the results showed that 100 micrograms of bacopa extract was equivalent to 247 micrograms of EDTA and 58 micrograms of vitamin E.
Just as importantly, the researchers discovered that the antioxidant benefits of bacopa increased as the dose of the extract is increased.
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