- The brain health supplement market is expected to reach approximately 16 billion dollars by 2030.
- Study authors developed a long list of memory supplements, 103 items.
- The products claim to boost memory or prevent or improve memory loss.
There is a large market for brain health supplements (called smart drugs). The market is expected to reach approximately 16 billion dollars by 2030.
A major reason people use brain health supplements is that these products promise to preserve or improve memory. But do they? What does the evidence say?
In a recent paper, Hersant and colleagues from the Saint Louis University School of Medicine present a review of memory supplements.
Specifically, they discuss the effectiveness of 18 ingredients commonly found in over-the-counter brain boosters. Their findings, published in CNS Drugs, are discussed below.
Investigating supplements for brain health and memory
After an extensive survey of products on the market (on sale at Amazon, Whole Foods, and CVS), the authors developed a long list of memory supplements (103 items).
The most common ingredients in these products were identified and reviewed. Each product on the list contained at least one of 18 ingredients. These are listed (and briefly described) below.
1. Apoaequorin: Apoaequorin is a calcium-binding protein found in certain jellyfish. It is available as the supplement Prevagen. Unfortunately, there is limited clinical research on it, aside from the information provided by Prevagen’s manufacturer.
2. Ashwagandha: Also known as Withania somnifera or winter cherry, this herb is commonly used in traditional Indian medicine. Ashwagandha has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties. Some evidence from India suggests it may improve cognition in both healthy adults and those with mild cognitive impairment.
3. Carnitine: Derived from an amino acid, carnitine plays a major role in energy metabolism and production. Systematic reviews have found insufficient evidence to recommend carnitine supplementation in people with cognitive decline.
4. Choline: Considered an essential nutrient, choline has many functions, particularly the regulation of memory. Choline supplementation appears to improve memory in healthy adults, people with subjective memory complaints, and those with dementia.
5. Coenzyme Q10: Also called ubiquinone, CoQ10 is known to have antioxidant properties. However, no reliable evidence has been obtained on CoQ10 supplementation ameliorating neurodegeneration and preventing dementia.
6. Coffee extracts: Coffee extracts and caffeine appear to boost short-term memory. Yet, it is not clear if coffee has positive long-term effects on memory, such as preventing cognitive decline or reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
7. Ginger: Some components of ginger, a plant that has been used as food and spice for hundreds of years, may have health benefits such as anti-inflammatory effects. Ginger may also enhance cognitive function. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study concluded that ginger improves working memory in middle-aged, healthy women.
8. Ginkgo biloba: Though Ginkgo leaf extracts have various alternative medicine uses (e.g., for better circulation), there is no solid scientific evidence that they can prevent memory decline or dementia.
9. L-Theanine: L-theanine, found in green tea, is an amino acid. Though a few studies have shown potential memory improvement with green tea, the beverage contains other psychoactive compounds (e.g., caffeine, flavonoids), so it is hard to tell if L-theanine is the cause of these benefits.
10. Huperzine A: Huperzine A, an herb derived from Chinese club moss, has potent acetylcholinesterase inhibitory activity. Does this mean it improves cognition in Alzheimer’s disease? Possibly, although the quality of research evidence is low.
11. Lion’s mane: The potential memory benefits of these medicinal mushrooms have been studied in three randomized controlled trials (example). They all concluded that Lion’s mane improved cognitive function in older adults. However, given the small samples and small effect sizes, the results are only preliminary.
12. Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are “healthy fats” (e.g., help lower triglyceride levels). Some research suggests they may also promote brain health. Yet, a systematic review of three randomized placebo-controlled trials found no “convincing evidence” for the efficacy of these fats in treating Alzheimer’s disease.
13. Other polyphenols: One reason for the potential benefits of many memory supplements, including some already discussed, is the presence of flavonoids. These are a subclass of polyphenols, which research suggests have protective effects in cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease). Foods rich in polyphenols include grapes, red wine, berries, and cocoa beans.
14. Phosphatidylserine: Phosphatidylserine is a lipid and a component of the cell membrane. Limited research indicates it reduces memory impairment and cognitive dysfunction in older people.
15. Turmeric: Turmeric is a spice that contains curcumin, a polyphenol. A 2021 systematic review concluded that curcumin supplementation was associated with improvement in working memory. However, compared to the control group, people taking curcumin reported experiencing more gastrointestinal adverse events (e.g., stomach upset).
16. Vitamin B: Some vitamins, such as B9 and B12, play an important role in nerve and brain health. Nevertheless, there is a lack of scientific evidence showing the benefits of vitamin B supplementation on cognitive functioning in healthy adults.
17. Vitamin D: Aside from promoting calcium absorption and the formation of strong bones, vitamin D may play a role in brain function. But does supplementation improve cognition? Possibly. For instance, according to a 2021 systematic review, 50 percent of trials showed “mixed results, one-quarter negative results, and the last quarter positive effects for vitamin D supplementation on cognitive performance.”
18. Vitamin E: Vitamin E is a fat-soluble micronutrient with important antioxidant properties. Though vitamin E does not appear to benefit cognition in healthy adults, some data indicates it may slow the progress of Alzheimer's disease.
So, which brain health supplements benefit memory?
Based on the available data, there was a lack of evidence supporting the use of apoaequorin, coenzyme Q10, coffee extracts, L-theanine, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin B6, vitamin B9, and vitamin B12 supplementation.
In contrast, some evidence supported the use of supplements containing the following eight ingredients: ashwagandha, choline, curcumin, ginger, Lion’s mane mushroom, polyphenols, phosphatidylserine, and turmeric.
Mixed results were obtained for carnitine, ginkgo biloba, huperzine A, and vitamins D and E.