Brain Teasers: Popping Pills for Better Memory
Read the article in the May Issue of Nutrition Action.
CSPI Senior Nutritionist David Schardt reviews the claims of so-called memory supplements.
More Information on Memory Supplements
For example, in a study published
last December, roughly 3,200 healthy
middle-aged and older U.S. women who
took an average of 300 IU of vitamin E
a day scored no better on thinking and
memory tests after four years than a similar
group of women who took a placebo....
That’s consistent with the results of two
earlier studies that looked at cocktails of
antioxidants. In one, from the United Kingdom,
roughly 10,000 men and women aged
40 to 80 with heart disease or diabetes
took a daily combination of vitamin E
(600 IU), vitamin C (250 mg), and betacarotene
(33,000 IU). After five years,
they were just as likely to show mental
decline as 10,000 similar people who took
And 1,000 U.S. men and women in
their 70s who took 400 IU of vitamin E,
500 mg of vitamin C, and 25,000 IU of
beta-carotene every day for more than
six years scored no differently on
concentration and memory tests
than a comparable group who took
Bacopa. Shaklee adds a bacopa extract to its Memory Optimizer pills, because the herb “improves memory and the ability to learn new information,” according to the company. That doesn’t jibe with results from the only three well-designed studies of bacopa, which were all conducted in Australia. In one, 23 adolescents and young adults who were given 300 mg of bacopa every day for three months scored higher on learning and memory tests than similar people who were given a placebo. But that finding would have been chalked up to chance if the researchers hadn’t been unusually lenient in defining what was “statistically significant.” And in the other two studies, 300 mg a day of bacopa for four to six weeks did little or nothing for the minds of 80 middle-aged and older adults.
DMAE. We couldn’t find a single study that looked at DMAE’s impact on memory or powers of concentration in healthy adults. And DMAE has failed nearly every test of its usefulness in neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s chorea.
Huperzine A. Huperzine A pills have never been tested on memory or other brain functions in healthy adults. “There have been no controlled clinical trials outside China assessing its toxicity and efficacy,” says Dana Belongia of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (The Chinese studies were almost exclusively in people with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.) Belongia is running the first U.S. trial of huperzine A in Alzheimer’s patients. “Huperzine A is a highly potent compound,” cautions The Natural Pharmacist, a series of reviews of dietary supplement research (now known as The Natural Health Encyclopedia)....“We recommend using it only under a doctor’s supervision.”
Phosphatidylserine (PS). Two decades ago, a few studies showed that PS might help some people with dementia or with serious memory problems. In that pre-mad-cow-disease world, PS was extracted from cow brains. Today, soybeans provide PS. But the only good study of soy PS, published six years ago, came up empty. Researchers in the Netherlands gave 300 mg or 600 mg a day to 120 men and women aged 58 and older who were suffering from a greater than typical memory decline for their age. After 12 weeks, the volunteers didn’t perform any better on memory tests than similar people who were given a placebo In 2004, the FDA concluded that there is “little scientific evidence” that PS can reduce “the risk of cognitive dysfunction in the elderly.”
B Vitamins. Through the end of 2006, 18 trials had tested vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12, folic acid, or a combination of the three on memory and learning in people who took them for up to two years. Only one of the 18 found any benefit. And that was a small study of 16 cognitively impaired men and women in Italy who took a megadose of 15,000 mcg of folic acid every day for two months. (The recommended daily intake of folic acid is 400 mcg.)
In a 2007 study, 400 Dutch men and women aged 50 to 70 who took 800 mcg of folic acid every day for three years scored better on tests of memory and information processing than 400 similar people who took a placebo.10 “But the study isn’t relevant to people in the United States,” says Martha Morris of the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging in Chicago. “The Dutch researchers targeted volunteers who were lacking in folate when they entered the study. But in the United States, the grain supply is fortified with folic acid and folate insufficiency is rare.” (In the Netherlands, flour and cereals aren’t fortified with folic acid.) “So it is very misleading to make a broad statement about how this study shows that folic acid can help your brain.”
Ginkgo biloba. Yet “studies of ginkgo in healthy people haven’t been that encouraging,” says Henderson. In six of the seven trials that tested ginkgo in healthy middle-aged and older adults over the past five years, the herb did little or nothing....The most recent: Australian researchers gave 80 men and women aged 55 to 79 either 120 mg of ginkgo or a placebo every day for three months.11 The ginkgo takers scored better on one of 14 tests of brain function, a result the researchers said “may not be reliable.” (When only one out of many tests yields promising results, researchers suspect that it may be due to chance.)
Vinpocetine. Yet no published studies have ever looked at whether a daily dose of vinpocetine can help healthy adults’ brains keep humming along normally. Maybe Julian Whitaker was thinking of the handful of preliminary studies that were conducted more than 15 years ago, in which vinpocetine seemed to help some patients suffering from stroke or Alzheimer’s disease.
Which of today’s “brain-booster” pills will join these three forgettable supplements, which we described in September 2001 (“Memory Pills—Mostly Forgettable”)?
Cognita. It “represents... the best available science,” General Nutrition Centers said when it introduced the supplement in 2001. But that science never materialized and GNC today won’t disclose the results. Instead, the company quietly stopped selling Cognita in 2003.
Focus Factor. “Dramatically improve your focus, concentration and memory, and eliminate mental fatigue in one month or less,” promised Texas chiropractor Kyl Smith. But Smith never published the clinical trial that he said would back up his ads. In 2004, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission fined Smith $60,000 for making “false or misleading” advertising claims. (The“consumers” who endorsed Focus Factor in his infomercials turned out to be Smith’s attorney, employees of the public relations firm he hired to promote Focus Factor, and distributors of the supplement.) Focus Factor is now sold by a Portland, Maine, company that advertises it simply as support for “healthy brain function”—a claim that requires no evidence.
Senior Moment. Manufacturer Nutramax never had any proof for what it called“the next generation in memory enhancement.” In 2002, the Council of Better Business Bureaus’ National Advertising Division recommended that Senior Moment’s advertising claims “be substantially modified or discontinued.” And in 2004, the Federal Trade Commission prohibited Nutramax from claiming that Senior Moment could“prevent or reverse the effects of memory loss.” Nutramax no longer sells Senior Moment.