September    |    Brain

Shaping Up for Back to School

Oscar Wilde…memory is the diary that we all carry about with us

The relaxed summer sigh unescapably leads to bursting prospects in September, school’s start and end to intervals of vacation. The brain snaps back into thinking gear. Learning, memory, and lucid thought take their front seats. Crucial yet difficult to understand, the brain and what goes amiss in memory loss remain mysteries despite defining attempts.

The mind sets human beings apart from other species. Memories tell the story of who we are. A child’s brain mimics a sponge; later in life more a sieve. In between we stretch our brain, memorizing facts, learning life skills, striving for wisdom. With the natural phenomenon of aging, degenerative change occurs, making it harder to remember. Memory retention advice from the Blue Zones, the world’s demographic areas with highest longevity rates, is basic. Get regular exercise, maintain intellectual stimulation, socialize. Food matters. Recently, researchers tested a plan coined the MIND diet, a close Mediterranean diet sibling. By eating whole grains, more vegetables and berries, and limiting processed foods the study showed improved memory compared to those who ate whatever. Regardless, in our culture of magic bullets and quick fixes, we search for remedies in a pill.

Senior Moments and Competitive Advantage

Winston Churchill…the empires of the future are the empires of the mind

Certain days a haze falls over my brain. I know that I know but I can’t lift the cloud to extract the answer. Bothersome, but not debilitating, a recent study concluded these lapses do not mean declining memory. Instead harder retrieval is due to vast amount of information stored. That sounds good, better than senior moments. Most research on memory focuses on cause and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Questions remain unanswered. Neuroscience accepts that Alzheimer’s confusion is related to loss of narrative memory, our story of who and where we are and what we are doing. The overwhelming disorientation experienced may progress to language deficits and behavioral disturbances.

We embrace an anti-aging mentality that also covets memory enhancement for competitive advantage. Students and professionals subsisting in our competitive world where technology generates overwhelming information know a good memory is not enough. Pressure is high to be the best, learn more, retain more, achieve more. Our culture of data endlessly streaming on all devices combined with productivity ratings and performance targets leave the average person feeling inept and unable to remember. A college student or young employee may be doing fine, but only working at 50% of their capacity, they want to reach 80 or 90% to achieve that place of the highest producer or over achiever.

Enter “cosmetic neurology” the practice of using drugs to strengthen ordinary cognition. It helps to be smarter, need less sleep, able to learn faster and remember more. An aging population refusing memory loss, anxious employees in an efficiency-based office where the work never ends, and eager to succeed students caught in an environment where being a high achiever isn’t enough are the users.

Cognition and Botanical Medicine

Paracelsus…the art of healing comes from nature … therefore, the physician must start from nature with an open mind

Ask a traditional healer, they already know plants can assist with cognitive performance whether improving memory and focus or preventing decline. No breakthrough drugs have been discovered for dementia or Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or even brain fog. A younger version of cerebral impairment rears its head as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Presenting as limited focus and ability to complete tasks, forgetfulness, sometimes leading to learning disabilities in children, treatment is prescription cognitive stimulant medications. Speculation about cause shows no link to poor diet choice, too much TV or computer time. But it seems that the ADHD brain works differently with altered neurotransmitter activity. For all the help pharmaceuticals offer, questions around long-term effects remain.

The complex and highly sensitive brain seems crying for assistance from plants. Phytochemicals may make memory better. Chemical compounds such as saponins and triterpenes protect brain cells from destruction; increase protein and RNA turnover in specific brain areas; modulate effect on cholinergic system responsible for production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine; and enhance protein kinase activity affecting memory storage. Antioxidants reduce free radicals protecting neurons from toxicity and sticky plaque deposits, preserving youthful thinking and memory capacity. These are the constituents of nootropic plants.

Nootropics – “the noo thing”

(pronounced noh-uh-TROP-iks) – pharmaceutical drugs, supplements, nutraceuticals, functional foods all with the ability to enhance mental function; memory, cognitive, and intelligence enhancer

In 2009, The NewYorker reported on a growing drug trend among Ivy League college students. The article focused on their difficulty in keeping up with massive assignments while maintaining a social life. They turn to “smart pills”, off-label pharmaceuticals like Adderall, prescribed for children with ADHD to improve focus. One interviewee who used pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement to increase his success blamed the fact that the competitive world dictates choice to stay competitive or not, sometimes that necessitates help. Because pharmaceuticals for ADHD have side effects including nervousness, headaches, sleeplessness, decreased appetite, and possible dependence, better options and new forms of caffeine boosts would be welcomed.

Silicon Valley, the San Francisco bay area home of high tech corporations, put its finger on the pulse. The programmers, the thinkers need help too. Nootropic start-up companies offer a solution to high tech engineers under pressure to produce. Similar to pharmaceuticals like Adderall, nootropics are categorized as supplements. Powders can be purchased in bulk and made into capsules. Ready-made versions are called stacks. Companies with names like Nootrobox, truBrain, Nootrobrain, and Nootroo sell stacks online. Nootrobox uses the tagline “nutrients for your brain”. Their website lists three ways their products work that sound enticing and similar to botanical nootropics. Capsules are available in a monthly supply with options for intense need for work completion, daily tonic, or sedation. Their daily supplement called RISE used to improve focus and clarity without anxiety contains three ingredients, two of which are botanicals.

Self-Experimenters

Albert Einstein…if we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

Brain enhancement drugs and supplements for healthy people may not be FDA tested but online forums offer information to those interested in places like Reddit. Subreddit/r/nootropic is devoted to the discussion of nootropics with recommendations on formulas and dosage. One post recommends caffeine mixed with L-theanine, which is derived from green tea and decreases the jittery effect of caffeine. Another offers recipes to mix your own nootropic.

“Stacks” are improvised combinations of neuroenhancers. It seems these online stack creators are practicing their own kind of herbalism, mixing formulas and applying their experiences as research. One difference, matching the right herb for the right person would be hard to do by reading anonymous bulletin boards. It would be fascinating if a study were done on the effect stacks actually achieve.

Reading through posts from a forum for advocacy and research for unlimited lifespans called Longecity, I saw a stack recipe that included bacopa, gotu kola, gingko biloba, ashwaganda, a ginseng combination of eleuthero, panax, and American, and lion’s mane (an medicinal mushroom). This anonymous member could easily be an herbalist, creating a memory enhancing formula using the concept of synergy. Compared to an herbal formula called Clarity Compound sold by Herbalist & Alchemist a reputable herb supplier, the top three ingredients were identical – bacopa, gotu kola, and gingko biloba. Impressive.

The Botanicals

Perhaps it is brilliant that bacopa is often the number one ingredient in stack formulas. Research supports its use as nootropic, neuroprotective and anxiolytic. No argument can ensue for the stack formula addition of Brahmi or Bacopa monieri, traditionally used in Ayruvedic medicine specifically as a cerebral stimulant. Clinical trials show over time, bacopa increases retention of new knowledge and improves both short term and long term memory. Known by herbalists as a cerebral tonic that increases cerebral circulation, bacopa is added in herbal formulas to increase mental clarity and concentration. Bacopa has been traditionally used after head trauma and strokes, nervous exhaustion, and in ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease.

Centella asiatica, gotu kola, the second stack ingredient with long history of traditional use as a cerebral tonic for impaired memory and mental exhaustion also acts as an anti-inflammatory in the brain. In Ayurveda it is known as a great rasayana or restorative herb and is used in early stage Alzheimer’s disease, recovery from head trauma injury, and nervous exhaustion.

Gingko biloba, the best known of the stack ingredients also acts as a cerebral stimulant increasing blood flow to the brain. Herbalists know it as nootropic, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective. The key to using gingko is it must be used as a concentrated standardized extract and not as ground leaf, the active components are not water soluble making it totally inactive in water as tea or in a capsule. There is limited activity as a tincture, but it is powerful in the phytopharmaceutical standardized extract form. Gingko flavones, the major constituents, increase cerebral circulation impacting cognitive function and memory loss, even in Alzheimer’s disease and old-age dementia.

I did not notice the important mention of product quality on bulletin boards. If Bacopa is grown under wet conditions it will be less active. Gotu kola is known for growing as a weed in sewage areas and other unclean spaces; if supplier integrity is unknown the product may be tainted. And the addition of powdered gingko may be entirely inactive if not the standardized extract.

There is nowhere in India or China that made it to the Blue Zone list. Despite their more mainstream use of herbal medicine, people do not live longer and do suffer from degenerative brain disorders. In longevity zones, like Ikaria Greece and Sardinia Italy, dementia is nonexistent. The Blue Zone premise is cleaner living, freedom from pollution and stress, no mention of herbs. My personal experience with nootropic herbs feels like sharper, clearer thinking in the now. I also think prevention a worthy possibility.

That herbalism has caught the attention of Silicon Valley is exciting. Perhaps that is the ticket for herbs to become more an accepted norm and mainstream. For the clarity of mind we crave, smart pills may not be for everyone, but a morning cup of tea spiked with a nootropic tincture proves a safe and effective way to clear away morning cobwebs and shift the brain into gear. A lunch with rosemary in a quiche or muffin or cookie and a cup of green tea with schisandra berries may facilitate a productive afternoon. Fundamental to Ayruvedic medicine is the use of medhya rasayanas. Medhya means intellect and/or retention. Rasayana means a therapeutic preparation that will boost nourishment, health, memory, intellect, immunity and ultimately longevity. Rasayana herbs are considered restorative, promoting intelligence and freedom from age-related disorders. This sounds exactly the goal of innovators from Silicon Valley and they are using two rasayanas, bacopa and gotu kola. The downside of cognitive push is an overworked and technology driven society. I wonder if the answer is taking drugs to keep up. I hope the nootropic start-ups will continue their research and look to Ayurvedic rasayanas as their models.

Ayurvedic memory enhancing herbs

  • Amla
  • Ashwaganda
  • Bacopa
  • Gotu kola
  • Guduci
  • Licorice
  • Pippali long pepper
  • Shatavari

TCM memory enhancing herbs

  • White peony
  • Schisandra
  • Polygala

Western memory enhancing herbs

  • Rosemary
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Rhodiola

References

Nishteswar, K., Hemang Joshi and Rahul Dutt Karra. “Role of indigenous herbs in the management of Alzheimer’s disease”. Anc Sci Life, 2014 Jul-Sep; 34(1):3-7. Web.

Morris, Martha C. et al. “MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging”. Alzheimer’s Dementia, 15 June 2015. Web. 6 August 2015.

Lin, Zhihong et al. "Traditional Chinese Medicine for Senile Dementia." Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Volume 2012 (2012). Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 2012. Web. Accessed 6 August 2015.

Talbot, Margaret. “Brain Gain: The underground world of “neuroenhancing” drugs”. The New Yorker, 27 April 2009. Web. Accessed 8 August 2015.

The Human Memory, 2010. Web. Accessed 14 August 2015.