Yes, there are several supplements that offer definite benefits for memory and cognition – making it easier to recall forgotten names, numbers, memories and passwords (a phenomenon known as lethologica or ‘tip of the tongue’), or simply halting the cognitive decline that comes with age.
DHA is a type of omega-3 fatty acid from marine sources which can improve recall of both new and old memories. It is found in the body’s cell membranes where it increases flexibility. The more supple a cell membrane, the faster the processes of transduction and neurotransmission. Taking DHA supplements thus results in a progressive increase in membrane flexibility, particularly in brain cells. This promotes the development of neural extensions, the establishment of synapses, neural plasticity, and the maturation of neurons and their migration towards target zones (1-2) – mechanisms which are all involved in memorisation and learning.
Because they also produce significant benefits for cardiovascular health, omega-3 are included in all kinds of quality supplements. Phosphatidylserine, another essential fatty acid found in neuron membranes, acts in exactly the same way.
Though relatively unknown, huperzine A is one of the best supplements available for treating memory problems. Like caffeine, it is an alkaloid extract of a medicinal plant. Its function is simple: it prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter essential for memory and learning) and in doing so, increases its levels (3). It also helps protect neurons against cell death caused by excessive glutamate levels (4-5). The doses used in clinical trials demonstrating its efficacy (improvements in memory and behaviour in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, advanced cognitive decline or basic memory problems) (6-8) ranged from 100 µg to 400 µg a day.
A supplement to prioritise when signs of decline are already apparent, or in cases of recurrent memory problems.
Numerous trials have shown that Ginkgo biloba is able to optimise cognitive function while also curbing cerebral ageing. Its ability to protect brain cells from oxidation is due to its high content in terpene lactones (9-11), helping to boost energy conversion and consolidate existing neural circuits (12). These circuits ensure the preservation of our memories and optimisation of our cognitive faculties. Other studies have shown that extracts standardised in terpene lactones increase serotonin in synapses which boosts activity in the hippocampus, a memory-integrating structure in the brain.
A recent meta-analysis suggested that a daily dose of 100mg-200mg of Ginkgo extract for at least three months is generally advisable for people wishing to gradually improve aspects of their day to day life (difficulties concentrating, small changes in memory, confusion, poor cognitive efficacy …) (13).
The jewel of Ayurvedic medicine, bacopa improves several specific elements of cognitive function, such as speed of information-processing and memory. Research has identified its ability to increase certain neuromolecular mechanisms involved in the junctions between brain cells (synapses), particularly in the hippocampus, an important site for memory (14).
A number of clinical trials (15-16) have demonstrated significant improvements from supplementing with bacopa (in most cases, for at least 12 weeks), particularly in learning, free recall (17-19), associative memory (20), attentional memory (21) and visual memory. In most of the trials, performance was measured objectively (using reliable, scientifically-recognised memory tests) and systematically compared with placebo.
Provided, that is, that you choose supplements high in baccosides (the active principles).
To a lesser degree, the following substances have also proved their worth: choline, the B group vitamins (particularly B6, B9 and B12), curcumin (from turmeric), ginseng and green tea.
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