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Brain Boosters: Pills and Potions

This is part one of a two-part series on ways to sharpen your brainpower.

WebMD Feature This is part one of a two-part series on ways to sharpen your brainpower.

The task of building a better mousetrap just got a lot harder. Scientists at Princeton University recently created a strain of smarter mice by inserting a gene that boosts the activity of brain cells. The mice can learn to navigate mazes and find or recognize objects faster than run-of-the-mill rodents. The news, announced in the Sept. 2, 1999 issue of the journal Nature, raises the possibility that genetic engineers may someday be able to help humans learn and remember faster, too.

But inserting genes into humans to increase intelligence is a long way off, researchers say. So is there anything we can do in the meantime to boost our brain power? The answer is yes. But the best way to do it may surprise you.

When many of us think of memory enhancers, we think of ginkgo biloba, the herb that now generates more than $240 million in sales a year worldwide. The October 22-29, 1997 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that Alzheimer's patients who took 120 mg of ginkgo showed small improvements in tests designed to measure mental performance.

Despite its popularity, however, there's no solid evidence that ginkgo can help healthy people concentrate or remember more clearly. Also, because ginkgo thins the blood, some scientists are concerned that taking too much of it could prolong bleeding, or even cause bleeding in the brain.

Another promising "smart pill" is phosphatidylserine, or PS, a natural substance that helps cell walls stay pliable and is thought to boost the effectiveness of neurotransmitters, which relay brain signals. In a May 1991 study published in Neurology, neuroscientist Thomas Crook found that patients with age-associated memory impairment improved their scores on key performance tests after 12 weeks on PS. Yet more research is needed before doctors can know that the supplement is safe and effective.

The Real Brain Power Pill

For now, instead of reaching for a designer supplement, you're better off taking a multivitamin, according to some experts. It's well known that antioxidants like vitamins C and E protect cells from damage by disarming free radicals. Brain cells are especially vulnerable to these troublemakers because the brain generates more free radicals per gram of tissue than any other organ. Antioxidants also protect neurons by keeping blood vessels supple and open, ensuring the flow of nutrients to the brain.

Recent findings also suggest that taking extra vitamins could help preserve memory, especially as we age. Researchers at Australia's University of Sydney tested 117 people in a retirement home by putting them through a battery of mental tests that included remembering a string of words, listing as many words as possible that begin with a certain letter of the alphabet, and doing mental addition and subtraction. Those who regularly took vitamin C, they found, scored higher on the tests.

And if you obtain your vitamin C from a multivitamin, you receive other key nutrients that many studies over the years have linked to healthy brain function, including beta carotene, iron, zinc, B12 and folic acid. In the June 1999 issue of the Journal of Biology and Psychiatry, for instance, researchers at Sweden's Gotenborg University reported that older people were more likely to score poorly on word memory tests if they had low levels of folic acid.

Feed Your Brain

The single most reliable way to protect our brain cells as we age, most researchers agree, is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are chock-full of antioxidants and nutrients. In a study published in the October 1997 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers tested 260 people aged 65 to 90 with a series of mental exercises that involved memorizing words or doing mental arithmetic. The top performers were those who consumed the most fruits and vegetables and ate the least artery-clogging saturated fat.

Blueberries and blackberries are at the top of the list of brain-boosting foods because they are exceptionally rich in chemicals called anthocyanins, which are among the most potent antioxidants. "But the real message here is that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables of all kinds does more than keep your heart healthy," says Tufts University neurobiologist James Joseph. It's healthy food for thought.

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