The Cognitive Continuum: Botanicals for Brainpower

Celeste Sepessy, Celeste Sepessy

July 17, 2013

6 Min Read
The Cognitive Continuum: Botanicals for Brainpower

Many botanicals claim hundredsor thousandsof years of providing natural solutions for cognitive conditions.  Ranging from Ginkgo biloba to resveratrol, these compounds tackle brain health in a multitude of ways, including improving blood flow, influencing critical hormones and preventing dangerous amyloid plaque build up in the brain.

Though an ancient herbal remedy, green tea and its primary compound epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) has recently gained a following for its wealth of health benefits, including boosting brain function and reducing depression.1 A November 2012 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition analyzed green tea extract's neural effects of human brain activation, finding the ingredient increased activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for working memory.2 Researchers from the University Hospital Basel, Switzerland, said green tea's benefits are two-fold; first, it may prohibit harmful plaques from depositing in the brain while keeping crucial neurotransmitters healthy.

Another study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January 2013 found EGCG broke down and prevented the aggregation of metal-associated amyloids, proteins associated with AD and other neurodegenerative diseases.3

New research showed curcumin, a compound found in the spice tumeric, lowered markers for mental decline related to AD. In a study published in September 2012's Nutrition Journal, a low dose (80 mg/d) of a curcumin-lipid preparation (as Longvida® Optimized Curcumin from Verdure Sciences) reduced levels of beta-amyloid protein, a maker of brain aging linked to AD development, in healthy, middle-aged adults.4 The botanical also helped alleviate depression comparable to antidepressant drugs in a recently published animal study.5

Sceletium tortuosum herb extract also elevates mood while improving cognition, with modern science to substantiate 300 years of documented indigenous use in South Africa. In a randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled study, subjects taking 25 mg daily of Sceletium tortuosum extract (as Zembrin® from P.L. Thomas) significantly improved executive function and cognitive set flexibility.6

"Zembrin® has a patented dual mechanism of action involving phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) and serotonin (5-HT) re-uptake inhibition," said Barbara Davis, Ph.D., director, medical and scientific affairs, P.L. Thomas. "It has been proposed that this potentially synergistic novel dual mechanism of action explains why Zembrin® can have a stress-reduction effect at low doses that could not be attributed to 5-HT uptake inhibition alone."  

French maritime pine tree bark extract has proven effective in benefitting multiple avenues of brain health, including mental focus, memory and mood. The centuries-old natural solution improves function of endothelial cells, which line blood vessels. "The endothelial cells autonomously regulate diameter of capillaries and arteries to maintain a healthy supply of oxygen-rich blood to organs," said Frank Schonlau, scientific director of Horphag Research, maker of Pycnogenol® French maritime pine bark. "This is of high importance especially to the brain, which is the most demanding in oxygen and nutrient supply."

In a clinical trial conducted at Pescara University, Italy, 100 mg/d of Pycnogenol enhanced cognitive function test results, attention, memory and mood in university students; supplementation also decreased anxiety by 17 percent compared to placebo.7 The extract's effects aren't limited to spritely college students; one study published in Journal of Psychopharmacology noted significant performance boosts in both spatial and numeric working memory in healthy elderly subjects.8

Recent years brought considerable success for the polyphenol resveratrol, and new research has further propelled the antioxidant into the cognitive category. Found in grapes and cacao, resveratrol protects the blood-brain barrier and offers anti-aging benefits for the brain.

U.K. scientists found cerebral blood flow increased 100 percent after resveratrol supplementation in a randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled study. Published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers noted the nutrient also improved deoxyhemoglobin in the 22 college students, suggesting boosted oxygen extraction in the brain.9 Participants either took 250 or 500 mg of oral resveratrol.

In November 2012, University of Florida researchers presented similar findings with "cognitively intact" adults.10 After 30 days, the 1,000 mg/d group had improved processing speed and blood flow to the brain, leading to increased hippocampal activation. Scientists suggested these results may lead to better long-term memory.

Though Ginkgo biloba is an established pillar in the botanical world, especially relative to brain health, multiple studies have questioned the herb's effectiveness in reducing AD risk. However, considerable data points to ginkgo's brain benefits: improving blood flow, circulation, memory and cognitive function. Ginkgo has confirmed benefits for stroke and AD victims, protecting against toxicity, preventing neural degeneration and inhibiting amyloid-beta pathological development seen in AD.11, 12 

Dietary supplement manufacturers are also combining Gingko with other ingredients with positive results. "VIRTIVA® is a Ginkgo biloba-phosphatidylserine (PS) complex exploiting the synergy between its two nootropic agents," said Christian Artaria, marketing director, Indena. "Due to its unique phytosome-like molecular structure, VIRTIVA® is designed to improve absorption and bioavailability of Ginkgo biloba's active constituents (ginkgo terpenoids and flavonoids)."

Combining ginkgo and phospholipids (as Virtiva, from Indena) improved secondary memory performance and significantly increased memory task speed in a University of Northumbria, UK, study.13 The placebo-controlled, double blind study, published in Human Psychopharmacology, measured cognitive performance in 28 healthy young subjects receiving either 120 mg Ginkgo biloba extract (GBE), Virtiva or placebo. GBE alone did not improve performance.

References are listed on the next page.

1. Niu K et al. " Green tea consumption is associated with depressive symptoms in the elderly." Am J Clin Nutr. December 2009.

2. Borgwardt S et al. "Neural effects of green tea extract on dorsolateral prefrontal cortex." Eur J Clin Nutr. 2012 Nov;66(11):1187-92

3. Hyung SJ et al. "Insights into antiamyloidogenic properties of the green tea extract-epigallocatechin-3-gallate toward metal-associated amyloid-species." PNAS. 2013 Feb 20.

4. DiSilvestro RA et al. "Diverse effects of a low dose supplement of lipidated curcumin in healthy middle aged people." Nutr J. 2012, 11:79.

5. Sanmukhani J et al. "Evaluation of antidepressant like activity of curcumin and its combination with fluoxetine and imipramine: an acute and chronic study." Acta Poloniae Pharmaceutica. 2011;68(5):769-75.

6. Chiu S et al. "The effect of extract Sceletium tortuosum (Zembrin®), targeting Phosphodiesterase subtype-4 (PDE-4), on cognitive function[s1] ."

7. Ryan J et al. "An examination of the effects of the antioxidant Pycnogenol on cognitive performance, serum lipid profile, endocrinological and oxidative stress biomarkers in an elderly population."J Psychopharmacol. 2008 Jul;22(5):553-62.

8. Luzzi R et al. "Pycnogenol® supplementation improves cognitive function, attention and mental performance in students." Panminerva Medica 2011 September;53(3 Suppl 1):75-82.

9. Kennedy DO et al. "Effects of resveratrol on cerebral blood flow variables and cognitive performance in humans: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover investigation." Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Jun;91(6):1590-7.

10. Resveratrol for Improved Performance in the Elderly (RIPE) trial, presented at the 65th Annual Scientific Meeting of The Gerontological Society of America, November 2012.

11. Saleem S et al. "Ginkgo biloba extract neuroprotective action is dependent on heme oxygenase 1 in ischemic reperfusion brain injury." Stroke. 2008 Dec;39(12):3389-96.

12. Wu Y et al. "Amyloid-beta-induced pathological behaviors are suppressed by Ginkgo biloba extract EGb 761 and ginkgolides in transgenic Caenorhabditis elegans." J Neurosci. 2006 Dec 13;26(50):13102-13.

13. Kennedy DO et al. Acute cognitive effects of standardised Ginkgo biloba extract complexed with phosphatidylserine." Hum Psychopharmacol. 2007 Jun;22(4):199-210.

About the Author(s)

Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the health and nutrition industry.
Join 37,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like