How Green Was My Valium
Reports that a screening program funded by the National Institute of Mental Health is demonstrating that molecules in many herbal folk remedies actually attach to brain receptors that receive chemical messages. Medicinal value of ginkgo.
By PT Staff published July 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Herbs for the Head
This is your brain. And this is your brain on ginkgo, a tree widely used for medicinal purposes.
If the latter brain looks a wee bit smarter, don't be surprised. A screening program funded by the National Institute of Mental Health is demonstrating that molecules in many herbal folk remedies actually attach to brain receptors that normally receive chemical messages. So extracts of plants like ginkgo may have true medicinal value, elevating mood or enhancing memory.
"I have no idea whether the binding we're seeing is directly related to the therapeutic effects claimed for these plants," says Jerry Cott, Ph.D., chief of the NIMH pharmacologic treatment research program. "But it definitely shows they have biological activity." And in many cases, adds Cott, pure compounds derived from the herbs are actually less active than crude extracts. "It may be true that there is some benefit to using the whole plant," he says.
Many of these herbs are already mainstream medicine in countries like Germany, where plant extracts are widely prescribed by doctors. "They're treated more like standard drugs," says Doug McKenna, Ph.D., research director of Botanical Dimensions, a repository in Occidental, California, for plants that may have medicinal value.
Of course, the word "herb" is by no means synonymous with "effective" or "safe." Among those whose side effects are slim and benefits for the brain most promising:
o Ginkgo. May improve memory; the World Health Organization is planning an international study testing ginkgo as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease,
o Passion flower. Appears to have antianxiety properties.
o Saint-John's-wort. Preliminary studies suggest it may help improve mood.
o Valerian. Its odor can be a bit, um, ripe, but valerian may have value as a mild sedative and sleep aid.