Bacopa monniera Is a Link to Your Past

Ancient herbal remedy can help improve learning, memory, and more

Some people have terrific memories. They're born that way. Their talent becomes apparent at an early age, and it stays with them forever. It is one of life's great gifts, and they should be grateful, because a superior memory is of inestimable advantage in almost any line of work. And, of course, it adds to the joy of life - especially later in life, when memories become increasingly precious.

Another type of person who should be grateful is the one who easily remembers the good experiences in life, and just as easily forgets the bad ones - not the big bad ones, of course, but the ones of no great consequence, such as a crummy restaurant, a rained-out trip, or a surly clerk. Pity the people - and we all know some - who not only don't forget such aggravations, but dwell on them. Sometimes, forgetting is as useful as remembering.

There are many variations on the memory theme, but it's safe to say that there are few people who don't wish they had a better memory than they do, especially as they grow older and time takes its toll. Imagine their surprise if they were to learn that enhanced memory - and enhancement of some other cognitive functions as well - is available in the form of a plant extract.

The plant is Bacopa monniera. Use of this humble but potent botanical - a perennial creeping marsh herb - has been part of the tradition of Ayurveda, a system of folk medicine that originated in India several thousand years ago (see the sidebar). The herb is also called Brahmi.

In Ayurvedic medicine, Bacopa has been used as a memory-enhancing, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antipyretic, sedative, and antiepileptic agent. Of these, the memory-enhancing function of Bacopa has attracted the most interest - and the best evidence for efficacy - in the West, where the acid test is proof through laboratory experiments and clinical trials.

A gratifying trend in Western medicine is the growing (if sometimes grudging) appreciation for the medical knowledge - and wisdom - developed thousands of years ago in the Orient by sages who were as committed to wellness of the mind and of the spirit as of the body. They saw all three, in harmonious balance, as equally important to the attainment of good health.1

In the modern high-tech world, that way of thinking takes some getting used to, because most Western physicians still tend to compartmentalize body and mind as separate entities, and they often have no idea at all what to do with (or about) the spirit. But some of them, at least, are fumbling their way toward a more enlightened and holistic view of medical practice by assimilating other belief systems into their thinking and embracing the evidence, where it can be found, of successful therapies. Many such therapies rely on the amazingly varied qualities of natural herbal products, which collectively constitute one of the world's great treasures.

Scientists in Australia recently conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled, 12-week study to evaluate the effects of Bacopa on memory and other cognitive functions in healthy human subjects.2 A battery of 16 well-validated neuropsychological tests was administered to 46 volunteers (11 men and 35 women) aged 18 to 60 years, all of whom were free of physical or psychiatric conditions and of medications.

The tests were designed to assess a wide range of cognitive variables, including attention, short-term memory, verbal learning, memory consolidation, executive processes, planning and problem solving, information-processing speed, motor responsiveness, decision making, and anxiety state.

The tests were given at the outset of the trial to establish baseline values, and then again 5 weeks and 12 weeks after the treatment commenced. The treatment consisted of either placebo or a Bacopa extract: 150 mg (equivalent to 3 g of the dried herb) taken in capsule form twice daily (300 mg/day total) for 12 weeks.

The study showed that Bacopa significantly improved the speed of early information processing, verbal learning rate, and memory consolidation in humans. These results support previous animal studies3 and clinical trials on children4 and on patients with anxiety neurosis,5 all of which showed learning and memory-enhancing effects with Bacopa extracts. The authors concluded by saying that "The current finding suggests that B. monniera may improve higher-order cognitive processes that are critically dependent on the input of information from our environment such as learning and memory."

The results also showed a significant anxiolytic (antianxiety) effect, which was also consistent with prior research. The authors suggested that this effect might be due to modulation of brain levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, because it is known that Bacopa does modulate serotonin levels in animals. Serotonin plays an important role in mood regulation, among other things. It is also known from animal studies that Bacopamodulates the brain levels of acetylcholine, another important neurotransmitter, which is involved in memory and other cognitive functions.

In addition to its effects on brain neurotransmitters, Bacopa is known to have antioxidant effects that may account in part for its actions in enhancing cognitive functions.6 In laboratory studies on rat liver tissue, researchers found that Bacopa extract inhibits experimentally induced lipid peroxidation. Lipids are fatty substances such as cholesterol and triglycerides. In the bloodstream, their peroxidation (which is a specific kind of oxidation reaction, initiated by free radicals) is highly damaging to our health, because it plays a key role in the formation of atherosclerotic plaque in the arteries. And atherosclerosis can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Thus, anything that can help to inhibit lipid peroxidation is beneficial to our health, because it slows the progression of atherosclerosis.

In ancient times, before writing was invented, human knowledge was passed from generation to generation orally, in the form of myths, legends, songs, and epic poems. In India, some of these epics were gargantuan in scope, requiring days or even weeks to recite. They had to be memorized, of course - a task that probably took years to accomplish (no wonder someone finally invented writing!). Reputedly, Bacopa played a role in helping to enhance the memories of those who undertook this enormous challenge.

You may not be faced with anything quite so daunting in your life, but if it's possible to sharpen the edge of your memory a little, it will probably be worth it for the ways in which that might improve the quality of your life. It's a natural link to an ancient and honorable past.

What Is Ayurveda?

In Sanskrit, Ayurveda means the knowledge of life. It is the basis of one of the world's oldest systems of medical knowledge and practice. Historical evidence suggests that it began in India around the sixth century B.C. (coinciding roughly with the lifetime of the Buddha), although some scholars believe it is much older than that. There is much that practitioners of modern Western medicine could learn from it - and some of them do.

In Ayurveda, there is emphasis on the idea that the entire universe exists in microcosm within each human being and that achieving a balance between our microcosmic selves and the macrocosmic universe around us is essential for good health. Also central to the system is the belief that three entities - body, mind, and spirit - are inextricably interwoven in the fabric of both disease and health and that good health can exist only when all three are in harmony.

Ayurveda is one example of what is called mind/body medicine, in which the patient's state of mind - and an understanding of it by the practitioner - is an integral part of both the affliction and the path to its healing. Knowledge of the path for different kinds of afflictions - especially their prevention, which is the focal point of Ayurveda - came in ancient times from holy men called rishis, who codified their medical insights and passed them to the people as part of the sacred Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas.

The rishis intended that Ayurveda should provide wellness of both body and mind, thus creating an unimpeded road to spiritual fulfillment, the third arm of the "trinity" of good health. Who can deny the intrinsic appeal of such a philosophy? And who can say that it does not represent a most enlightened view of the human condition?

Hawking, the Ultimate Inspiration

Stephen Hawking - in all of history, there has probably never been such a striking mismatch between body and mind. Hawking's frail, twisted body is ravaged by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to the point of almost total incapacity, but his mighty intellect still soars unfettered, to the outermost limits - and beyond - of man's knowledge of the universe. He is regarded as the greatest physicist since Newton and Einstein.

In the early 1970s, to compensate for the relentless onslaught of his crippling disability (a decade earlier, he had been given only two more years to live), Hawking taught himself radically new ways of thinking about the deepest problems of physics and cosmology. He realized that he would have to free himself of the need to write down the arcane mathematical equations that such research entails. He developed a capacity for performing immensely complex and lengthy calculations in his head, which he would then dictate (at least while he could still speak) to his assistants. None of his colleagues could fathom how such prodigious feats of memory were possible.

One can only be dazzled by Hawking's breathtaking achievements and the indomitability of his spirit. By his example, he has shown that there is always a way to better oneself. One way, perhaps, is to try to improve one's memory. It worked for him.


  1. Swerdlow JL. Nature's Medicine: Plants That Heal. National Geographic Society, Washington, DC, 2000.
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  3. Bhattacharya SK, Kumar A, Ghosal S. Effect of Bacopa monniera on animal models of Alzheimer's disease and perturbed central cholinergic markers of cognition in rats. In: Siva Sanka DV, ed., Molecular Aspects of Asian Medicines, PJD Publications, New York (in press).
  4. Sharma R, Chaturvedi C, Tewari PV. Efficacy of Bacopa monniera in revitalizing intellectual functions in children. J Res Edu Indian Med 1987;1:12.
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  6. Tripathi YB, Chaurasia S, Tripathi E, Upadhyay A, Dubey GP. Bacopa monnieraLinn. as an antioxidant: mechanism of action. Indian J Exp Biol 1996 Jun;34:523-6.