Both the Chinese and the Native Americans, two cultures completely
isolated from each other, used ginseng to increase their mental powers. So let's
explore the evidence modern science has to offer. First we'll go to the end -
the best research yet on how American ginseng helps memory was done right here
in Australia in 2010.
Research in Australia - 2010
Researchers in Melbourne tested 32 healthy men and women aged from 18 to 40 -
sat them down in separate rooms with headphones for the day and performed a
large range of tests, the kind neurology books are filled with. They had to
remember images, words, letters, numbers, shapes and faces. They were tested
with number puzzles and problems involving shapes and sequences. They even
tested how calm they were. Amazingly, all returned a week later for more
punishment. This time, and again for the next three weeks, some of them were
given capsules with an American ginseng extracts (100mg, 200mg or 400mg) and
some received a capsules with no ginseng. This was changed around each week and
they didn't know which they received. This is about as good as trials get -
randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled and cross-over.
The results were clear - those who took American ginseng had significantly
better working memory and mental performance, and were faster at making
decisions than those who did not. Those who took ginseng were also significantly
calmer and more relaxed. In most people even the lower dose of ginseng was
effective. The researchers hypothesised that ginseng benefits were due to its
effect on acetylcholine (see below) in the hippocampus and to a lesser extent
the brain cortex.
20 years of research before the Australian trial
Not surprisingly, the Chinese were the front-runners. They knew what Korean
ginseng could do and were keen to investigate its American blood-brother, which
has much more of the saponin Rb1 than the Korean variety. They started out with
testing both Rb1 and Rg1 on rats and mice, and found they both helped the
animals learn things such as navigate mazes or how to avoid pain (please don't
ask for details...).
The Canadians then beat the Americans to the punch - led by the University of
Alberta in 1991. They knew they could zap the memory of rats with a drug called
scopolamine and wondered if the American ginseng saponin Rb1 could prevent this.
Sure enough it did and hence began the research on how it influences the well
known nerve messenger acetylcholine. Christina Benishin went on to show that Rb1
stimulates the release of acetylcholine from the tiny brain memory centre called
the hippocampus, and showed it worked by increasing the uptake of the choline.
The implications of this research were barely noticed in the outside world, but
this small research community must have realised the possibilities. Today many
of the pharmaceutical drugs used for Alzheimer's disease work by stimulating
acetylcholine in the hippocampus.
Enter the Rockerfeller University, New York - and you guessed it, they too found
that the ginseng saponin Rb1 helped memory and learning, possibly through its
action on acetylcholine. They also found it boosted the chemical messengers
(mRNAs) that direct nerve messages in the forebrain and hippocampus.
Alzheimer's was again the focus of Japanese researchers in 2004. They had
earlier done ground-breaking work on how ginseng is metabolised in the body and
found that Rb1 changed in the body into a different substance called M1. They
discovered that both Rb1 and M1 can actually help restore damaged nerve cells in
mice with chemical-induced Alzheimer's disease. It did this by helping the
passage of messages along the long tails of the nerve cells and pass "across the
bridge" to the next nerve cell. In doing this the ginseng saponin helped to
protect their memory.
To really get a handle on how your memory works, you need to know about the
hippocampus. It's a little lump of tissue deep inside the brain that looks
amazingly like a seahorse (hence the name). Untold numbers of rodents have been
tested and dissected in the name of hippocampus research. We now know its main
purpose is to help file away new memories and to recall the old. Damage your
hippocampus and you'll have major problems learning and remembering new things
and to a lesser extent, recalling old memories. The hippocampus is especially
useful in spatial problems, such as remembering where you're going, knowing how
to get there and remembering where you've been. London cabbies have been found
to have bigger hippocampi than the average person!
So what's the Hippocampus got to do with Ginseng?
- American ginseng (especially the saponin Rb1) works within the hippocampus and
helps the nerve cells pass messages to each other by boosting the chemical
acetylcholine. Many pharmaceutical drugs do this too, and that's why they are
used to treat people with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
- Rb1 also appears to help mend damaged nerve cells. Not a bad quality if your
hippocampus has been damaged by being starved of oxygen (by a silent stroke),
infection, epilepsy, trauma, damage from stress hormones, or just plain old age.
Disruption of the hippocampus is one of the first signs of Alzheimer's.
- Rb1 appears to reduce the memory-killing effect of beta-amyloids, chemicals
that build up in the hippocampus and other parts of the brain in older people.
Apart from taking ginseng, what other natural things can I do to improve my memory?
A good brain needs plenty of blood, so just about anything that's good for your
heart will also help your thinking and memory. So:
- Eat healthy food, including fish and
- Get plenty of exercise for your body and mind
- Reduce stress in your life
- Enjoy an active social life
- Get plenty of regular sleep
And did you know the more you know the harder it is to learn new things? Because
you filter learning through the stuff you already know. It's easier to be a
child with a clean slate!
Any scientific information has been assembled by Simply Ginseng from
reputable peer-reviewed scientific journals. We have tried to ensure it is
clear, balanced and without bias. This information should not be construed
as claims for any of our products. Always consult your health care
professional.Use only as directed. Always read the label.