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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.