The task of building a better mousetrap just got a lot harder. Scientists at Princeton University recently created a strain of smarter mice by inserting a gene that boosts the activity of brain cells. The mice can learn to navigate mazes and find or recognize objects faster than run-of-the-mill rodents. The news, announced in the Sept. 2, 1999 issue of the journal Nature, raises the possibility that genetic engineers may someday be able to help humans learn and remember faster, too.
But inserting genes into humans to increase intelligence is a long way off, researchers say. So is there anything we can do in the meantime to boost our brain power? The answer is yes. But the best way to do it may surprise you.
By Helen Kirwan-Taylor
Many years ago I had a falling-out with a girlfriend that proved so painful, I can hardly talk about it today. My friend (let's call her Mary) was a colorful television personality and had the world at her feet. She was engaged to a handsome European, and her face was plastered across the newspapers. I was working for 60 Minutes at the time, and we often met for lunch. Then one day her show was canceled and she asked me - casually, as though it didn't really matter...
When many of us think of memory enhancers, we think of ginkgo biloba, the herb that now generates more than $240 million in sales a year worldwide. The October 22-29, 1997 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that Alzheimer's patients who took 120 mg of ginkgo showed small improvements in tests designed to measure mental performance.
Despite its popularity, however, there's no solid evidence that ginkgo can help healthy people concentrate or remember more clearly. Also, because ginkgo thins the blood, some scientists are concerned that taking too much of it could prolong bleeding, or even cause bleeding in the brain.
Another promising "smart pill" is phosphatidylserine, or PS, a natural substance that helps cell walls stay pliable and is thought to boost the effectiveness of neurotransmitters, which relay brain signals. In a May 1991 study published in Neurology, neuroscientist Thomas Crook found that patients with age-associated memory impairment improved their scores on key performance tests after 12 weeks on PS. Yet more research is needed before doctors can know that the supplement is safe and effective.
The Real Brain Power Pill
For now, instead of reaching for a designer supplement, you're better off taking a multivitamin, according to some experts. It's well known that antioxidants like vitamins C and E protect cells from damage by disarming free radicals. Brain cells are especially vulnerable to these troublemakers because the brain generates more free radicals per gram of tissue than any other organ. Antioxidants also protect neurons by keeping blood vessels supple and open, ensuring the flow of nutrients to the brain.
Recent findings also suggest that taking extra vitamins could help preserve memory, especially as we age. Researchers at Australia's University of Sydney tested 117 people in a retirement home by putting them through a battery of mental tests that included remembering a string of words, listing as many words as possible that begin with a certain letter of the alphabet, and doing mental addition and subtraction. Those who regularly took vitamin C, they found, scored higher on the tests.