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 sclerosis (MS).
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 Denver.
"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 yes."
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, multitask reasoning.
"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 tests.
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 functioning.
"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."