Stroke researchers from Beijing University of Chinese Medicine and Dongzhimen Hospital, Beijing, China say ginseng appears to boost the activities of the brain chemical acetylcholine, a substance in the brain that's involved in memory. Researcher Jinzhou Tian, MD, tells WebMD that studies in mice confirmed this effect but this is the first study to report the same effect in human brains.
The study results were presented here at the American Stroke Association's 28th International Stroke Conference.
The researchers tested 40 patients who had suffered brain damage from multiple small strokes. They randomly assigned 25 patients to get a ginseng tablet three times a day. The other 15 patients were treated with Duxil, a drug that increases oxygen in brain cells and is commonly used to treat stroke patients in China. Duxil is not available in the U.S., says Robert J. Adams, MS, MD, professor of neurology at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Ga.
Patients in both treatment groups were given memory tests aimed at evaluating short term memory skills such as the ability to repeat a series of words or numbers, delayed recall and visual memory. The patients were tested before initiation of either treatment and then were retested after 12 weeks of treatment.
The patients given ginseng improved in all areas of memory compared to memory scores before treatment and the improvement was significantly better than post treatment scores of patients taking Duxil. Adams, who was not involved in the study, tells WebMD that the results are "promising and they do point out that traditional medicines that are very commonly used may have some value and thus deserve careful attention."
But Adams says the study is too small to draw any useful conclusions. It is not, he says, sufficient evidence to make a recommendation to either patients or doctors. Moreover, he cautions against self-treatment with ginseng or any "natural" remedy. He says these compounds are actually "very powerful drugs" that should not be taken without medical supervision.
Overall, Adams says the study is a "good start" but doesn't meet the rigorous standards needed for studying drugs. "It is not a placebo-controlled study and even if it were placebo-controlled it is too small to provide enough information to make a treatment recommendation."
Source: American Stroke Association 28th International Stroke Conference, abstract P327.