Ginkgo May Boost Mental Function in MS
Larger Studies of Herbal Supplement Are Needed, Experts Say
April 18, 2002 -- Millions of people take the herbal supplement
ginkgo biloba in the belief that it boosts brain power, and several studies
suggest it improves mental function in some patients with Alzheimer's disease.
New research now shows that it may do the same thing for patients with multiple
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego,
report that small group of MS patients treated with ginkgo biloba had improved
memory and mental function, compared with placebo-treated patients. The study
was reported today at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology
"In fairness, this was a pilot study with only 23 patients
enrolled," study co-author Christopher Kenney, MD, tells WebMD. "We
wanted to address the question of whether a large study of ginkgo biloba is
justified in patients with MS. I think the answer is an overwhelming
At least 300,000 Americans have multiple sclerosis, and half of
them are thought to experience some type of mental impairment. According to
National MS Society spokeswoman Arney Rosenblat, the most common manifestations
of mental impairment are short-term memory loss and problems with complex,
"Some people experience these problems, but others
don't," she says. "The chief prosecutor in the Oklahoma City bombing
case had MS. So they definitely don't affect everybody."
In the double-blind study, patients with mild MS were
randomized to take either placebo or 240 mg of ginkgo biloba daily for six
months. Cognitive function was measured using standardized neuropsychological
There were no statistically significant differences between the
placebo- and ginkgo-treated groups at the beginning of the study. But the
patients who took ginkgo for three months performed better on the battery of
tests than those who did not. The researchers concluded that ginkgo biloba was
well tolerated by the patients and may help improve attention, memory, and
"Cognitive function is a very important issue for people
with MS, and there has not been enough research done on how to deal with it
using either traditional medicines or alternative approaches," says
Nicholas LaRocca, PhD, of the National MS Society. "We would be very
interested in seeing larger studies on this." LaRocca is the society's
director of healthcare delivery and policy research.
Ginkgo biloba is thought to be safe for use by MS patients. But
LaRocca warns that other herbal supplements may pose a danger. That is because
some, like the supplement echinacea, are believed to boost the immune system.
Though that may be a good thing for most people, it may actually cause problems
for patients with MS. Experts believe that MS may be caused by an overactive
immune system, which attacks the tissues lining nerve cells.
"The most important thing a patient that is worried about
cognitive problems can do is go and see a neuropsychologist," LaRocca says.
"Before they go out and start downing a lot of ginkgo biloba or anything
else, they need to find out what is really going on."