Brain Boosters: Pills and Potions

This is part one of a two-part series on ways to sharpen your brainpower.

From the WebMD Archives

This is part one of a two-part series on ways tosharpen your brainpower.

The task of building a better mousetrap just got a lot harder. Scientistsat Princeton University recently created a strain of smarter mice by insertinga gene that boosts the activity of brain cells. The mice can learn to navigatemazes 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 helphumans learn and remember faster, too.

But inserting genes into humans to increase intelligence is a long wayoff, researchers say. So is there anything we can do in the meantime toboost our brain power? The answer is yes. But the best way to do it maysurprise you.

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 MedicalAssociation reported that Alzheimer's patients who took 120 mg of ginkgoshowed small improvements in tests designed to measure mental performance.

Despite its popularity, however, there's no solid evidence that ginkgocan help healthy people concentrate or remember more clearly. Also, becauseginkgo thins the blood, some scientists are concerned that taking too muchof it could prolong bleeding, or even cause bleeding in the brain.

Another promising "smart pill" is phosphatidylserine, or PS, a naturalsubstance that helps cell walls stay pliable and is thought to boost theeffectiveness of neurotransmitters, which relay brain signals. In a May1991 study published in Neurology, neuroscientist Thomas Crook foundthat patients with age-associated memory impairment improved their scoreson key performance tests after 12 weeks on PS. Yet more research is neededbefore 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 betteroff taking a multivitamin, according to some experts. It's well known thatantioxidants like vitamins C and E protect cells from damage by disarmingfree radicals. Brain cells are especially vulnerable to these troublemakersbecause the brain generates more free radicals per gram of tissue thanany other organ. Antioxidants also protect neurons by keeping blood vesselssupple and open, ensuring the flow of nutrients to the brain.

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Recent findings also suggest that taking extra vitamins could help preservememory, especially as we age. Researchers at Australia's University ofSydney tested 117 people in a retirement home by putting them through abattery of mental tests that included remembering a string of words, listingas many words as possible that begin with a certain letter of the alphabet,and doing mental addition and subtraction. Those who regularly took vitaminC, they found, scored higher on the tests.

And if you obtain your vitamin C from a multivitamin, you receive otherkey nutrients that many studies over the years have linked to healthy brainfunction, including beta carotene, iron, zinc, B12 and folic acid. In theJune 1999 issue of the Journal of Biology and Psychiatry, for instance,researchers at Sweden's Gotenborg University reported that older peoplewere more likely to score poorly on word memory tests if they had low levelsof folic acid.

Feed Your Brain

The single most reliable way to protect our brain cells as we age,most researchers agree, is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, whicharechock-full of antioxidants and nutrients. In a study published in the October1997 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researcherstested 260 people aged 65 to 90 with a series of mental exercises thatinvolved memorizing words or doing mental arithmetic. The top performerswere those who consumed the most fruits and vegetables and ate the leastartery-clogging saturated fat.

Blueberries and blackberries are at the top of the list of brain-boostingfoods because they are exceptionally rich in chemicals called anthocyanins,which are among the most potent antioxidants. "But the real message hereis that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables of all kinds does more thankeep your heart healthy," says Tufts University neurobiologist James Joseph.It's healthy food for thought.

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