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...
Of course, no pill can make you a genius if you aren't one,
Flowers for Algernon style. So what exactly are brain boosters?
"It could mean several things. It could mean herbs or
nutrients that enhance clarity of thinking, alertness, focus, concentration,
memory, and even mood," says Ray Sahelian, MD, author of Mind
Boosters and a family practitioner in Marina Del Ray, Calif.
"Most commonly, people will notice that they are more
focused and alert, that they are more motivated, that they are processing
information faster," he says.
That is, if they notice any effects.
"Some have tried and have gotten benefits. Others may not
have noticed anything," Sahelian says.
Brain boosters may appear to stimulate mental activity, but
they are not stimulants in the strict sense, as things such as caffeine,
ephedrine, or amphetamines are. In many cases, no one really knows how they act
on the brain.
"Herbs will have several different compounds in them, as
opposed to, let's say, a drug like amphetamine, which is basically one
compound, one molecule," Sahelian says. "Herbs will have a set of
several or several dozen compounds in them. It's difficult to pinpoint which
one of them is the most active or whether it's the combination of many of them
that are producing the result."
In general, the idea that herbs or nutrients can boost
brainpower isn't proven, however.
There hasn't been much research on whether an intelligent,
healthy young person can function better intellectually under the influence of
reputed brain boosters, and when the research has been done, results have
Herbs for Thought
A lot of recent research has focused on ginkgo biloba, the leaf
of the ginkgo tree, which is native to China and one of the oldest plants on
Ginkgo is particularly interesting to researchers because of
its potential to treat Alzheimer's disease and age-related mental decline.
Several studies have shown that it does help these conditions, and it's
routinely prescribed in places like Germany and France.
It's believed that ginkgo works by thinning the blood and
thereby improving oxygen flow to the brain. The brain is a glutton for oxygen,
so it's possible that even a slight lack of circulation can affect its
As a brain booster for people with normal mental abilities, it
For example, a study published in the journal
Psychopharmacology in 2000 found that ginkgo improved attention. A 2001
study in the journal Human Psychopharmacology suggested that it improves
memory. Nevertheless, in a review of studies on ginkgo in healthy people,
researchers found no good evidence that it improved mental abilities, according
to a 2002 report in Psychopharmacology Bulletin.