Brainmakers: Can Popping Pills Preserve Memory?

By Schardt, David | Nutrition Action Healthletter, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Brainmakers: Can Popping Pills Preserve Memory?


Schardt, David, Nutrition Action Healthletter


Brainstrong. Brain Support. Focus Factor. Focus Fast. Focus Formula. Neuro Nectar. Sharp Thought. Smart Pill. Thinkfast.

Looking to stay mentally sharp? Those are just a few of the dozens of brain and memory supplements that would like to help you. Most are some combination of a half dozen or more "brain-boosting" compounds. Here's the evidence behind some of the most widely used ingredients.

DHA

Typical claims: "Clinically shown to improve memory." "Helps protect the brain against normal cognitive decline as we age."

What is it? One of the two omega-3 fats in fish oil (the other is EPA).

How companies say it works: By stabilizing brain cell membranes and suppressing inflammation.

The evidence: "There is no evidence that DHA helps the cognitive skills or memory of healthy people who don't have memory problems," says neuropharmacologist Krista Lanctot of the University of Toronto.

In the five largest and most recent trials, which looked at a total of roughly 1,600 healthy adults aged 20 through 80, those who took 176 to 845 milligrams of DHA every day for three months to four years showed no greater improvement in memory, reasoning, or other brain function than those who were given a placebo.(l-5)

And in a large trial that lasted 11/2 years, DHA did nothing for people with dementia. (6) However, DHA may make a small difference in those with mild cognitive impairment, memory complaints, or normal forgetfulness due to age.

In a recent meta-analysis by Lanctot and her colleagues that pooled the results of three small trials and a large companyfunded study of people in those three groups, taking 60 to 1,550 mg a day of DHA for three to six months had no impact on everyday activities. But it made a small difference in three of eight cognitive tests. For example, DHA takers performed better than placebo takers at recalling lists of words immediately (though not later).Z

(People with mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, have a diminished ability to plan and organize. Subtle lapses--asking the same question repeatedly, for example--are often apparent to friends, relatives, and co-workers. People with MCI are more likely to develop Alzheimer's.)

Bottom line: DHA may have a modest benefit for people with memory problems. "But the effect is small," cautions LanctOt, "and needs to be confirmed by larger trials that help us understand who might benefit."

For healthy people, though, "taking a walk every day is probably better for your brain than taking an omega-3 supplement," concludes Jennifer Robinson, codirector of the Prevention Intervention Center at the University of Iowa.

Phosphatidylserine (PS)

Typical claim: "The only dietary supplement with an FDA-approved qualified health claim for helping with cognitive dysfunction and dementia." Companies that make that boast in their ads seldom show the actual wording of the claim, though. Odds are, that's because the ads would have to include the "qualified" part: "There is little scientific evidence supporting this claim." Oops.

What is it? A fat-like compound found naturally in cell membranes, particularly in the brain. Until the mad cow scare of the mid-1990s, PS was extracted from cow brains. Today, it's made from soybeans.

How companies say it works: By keeping brain cell membranes supple and functioning properly.

The evidence: There are no published studies of soy PS in healthy people without memory problems. And in people with problems, researchers have pretty much come up empty:

* In two studies in the Netherlands and Israel on roughly 200 older adults with memory complaints, those who took 300 or 600 mg of PS every day for several months scored no better on memory tests than those who took a placebo. (8) (The Israeli study has never been published in a scientific journal.)

* In a 2010 Israeli study of 78 older adults with memory complaints, those who took 300 mg of PS that was chemically bonded to 79 mg of DHA plus EPA every day for 15 weeks performed no better than placebo takers on 14 of 15 cognitive and memory tests. …

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