Would-be brain boosters need data lift

The herb Ginkgo biloba and a range of nonprescription nutrients currently enjoy healthy sales as alleged enhancers of memory and intellect. Let the buyer beware, though. Research has yet to confirm that these so-called “brain boosters” work as advertised, according to a pair of reviews in the May Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Studies have found that ingesting gingko extract yields modest improvement, at best, in remembering and manipulating new information, say psychologist Paul E. Gold of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his coworkers. Memory gets a comparable boost in other work from attention-stoking effects of learning an exciting story or glucose-sweetened lemonade, they add. A large clinical trial is now under way to see whether gingko diminishes mental deficits caused by Alzheimer’s disease.

Various nutrients known to influence brain-cell functions have shown promise as memory aids in animal studies but have yet to receive close scrutiny in people, hold psychologist Mark A. McDaniel of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and his colleagues. These substances include phospholipids involved in cell-membrane functions, choline compounds thought to invigorate memory-related brain chemicals, and vitamins E and C, which may neutralize brain damage that occurs as people age.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.