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Is Ginkgo a "Smart Pill"?

You’ve finally wrestled your VCR into submission, only to be flummoxed by the control panel on your new digital movie camera. Before you concede defeat and turn all things electronic over to your nine-year-old, you might want to try sharpening your wits with a promising herbal combo.

A recent controlled study found that a blend of the herbs ginkgo biloba and Panax ginseng boosted mental performance in healthy middle-aged individuals--a possible plus when it comes to mastering the latest technological gadgetry.

Such herbal mind boosters may also help minimize the memory lapses that seem to occur with increasing frequency as people enter their 40s and 50s. So take heart the next time your lost car keys turn up in your sock drawer: There’s much you can do to improve your mental sharpness and revitalize a sluggish memory.

Age-old Remedy from an Ancient Tree

The herb ginkgo biloba comes from the world’s oldest living tree, a tree whose odd, doubled-lobed leaves fluttered in the breeze while dinosaurs still roamed the earth. In a way, it seems fitting that a compound extracted from the leaves of this ancient tree can help ease one of the woes of aging—the loss of mental acuity.

Although ginkgo has been used to combat age-related memory loss since ancient times—the first recorded instance being in China in 2800 BC—it’s only fairly recently that the herb has come under scientific scrutiny in the West.

A Wealth of Evidence

Ginkgo has been investigated in hundreds of studies in Germany, and in 1994 German health authorities approved ginkgo biloba extract for the treatment of dementia. Now one of the most widely used herbal medicines in Europe and the U.S., ginkgo is commonly taken to improve memory as well as alleviate circulatory problems in people with peripheral artery disease.

The ginkgo leaf contains numerous chemicals, including powerful antioxidant compounds called flavonoids. Canadian researchers recently reported that flavonoids in a ginkgo extract called EGb 761 protect brain cells against damage by free radicals and beta-amyloid, a protein that accumulates in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients (European Journal of Neuroscience, 6/00). Other components of ginkgo can prevent blood platelets from clumping together to form clots, lessening the risk of blood vessel obstruction.

Ginkgo for Dementia

Numerous studies have found ginkgo effective in treating memory problems in people with dementia, whether it’s caused by Alzheimer’s or blood vessel disease. A few years ago, the first American controlled clinical trial of ginkgo showed that a daily dose of 120 mg helped stabilize, and in many cases improve, the mental performance of people with mild to moderate dementia (Journal of the American Medical Association, Oct. 22-29, 1997).

Researchers at Oregon Health Sciences University who reviewed more than 50 published trials concluded that ginkgo biloba extract can improve cognitive function in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease (Archives of Neurology, 11/98). A University of Exeter study from the U.K. also found fairly compelling evidence that ginkgo is effective in delaying the course of dementia (Drugs and Aging, 12/99). And according to a recent Swiss study, ginkgo biloba is at least as effective as two currently prescribed drugs, donepezil and tacrine, for the treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s dementia (Phytomedicine, 1/00).

Boosting Brain Power

Now a recent clinical trial suggests that besides easing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, ginkgo can also help enhance the mental performance of healthy individuals. In this study, ginkgo was combined with Panax ginseng, another ancient herbal remedy that has been reported to improve concentration and mental functioning.

The study, which was presented at a National Institute of Mental Health seminar in Boca Raton, Florida (5/30-6/2/00), involved 256 healthy middle-aged volunteers ranging in age from 38 to 66 years. One group received the ginkgo/ginseng combination, either 160 mg twice a day or 320 mg once daily, for 12 weeks. The other group was given a placebo.

The trial was double-blind, meaning neither the researchers nor the participants knew who was receiving the active agent. The researchers assessed the subjects’ attention, concentration, and short- and long-term memory. Testing was done at the start of the study and then again after 4, 8, 12, and 14 weeks.

The ginkgo/ginseng combination was found to promote fast, accurate thinking, enhance memory retention, and reduce mental fatigue. Compared with the control group, those taking the herbal combination showed an improvement of 7.5% in short- and long-term memory, which persisted for two weeks after the treatment was stopped.

According to the study’s lead author, Dr. Keith Wesnes of Cognitive Drug Research in Reading, England, "These results suggest that individuals functioning in a fast-paced and demanding environment can improve their ability to process and retain new information and work with better mental efficiency."

So, if you find you’re growing older but not necessarily wiser, you might want to give these memory-enhancing herbs a try.


In general, ginkgo biloba appears relatively free of side effects. Because of its anticlotting properties, however, ginkgo may cause bleeding if combined with aspirin or an anticoagulant such as warfarin. Adverse reactions to Panax ginseng are also rare, although hypertension and tachycardia have been reported. Ginseng should not be combined with an MAO inhibitor antidepressant, and it has been reported to reduce the effectiveness of warfarin.

Shopping for Ginkgo

Ginkgo biloba should only be taken in the form of a standardized extract that contains at least 24% flavone glycosides and 6% terpene lactones. If you’re planning to take ginseng, you should read the label carefully to ensure that you’re getting Panax ginseng (and not American or Siberian ginseng, which have different effects). The ginseng product should be standardized to contain at least 7% ginsenosides.

According to Mark Blumenthal, Executive Director of the American Botanical Council, some ginkgo products that have been well studied are Ginkgold (Nature’s Way), Ginkoba (Pharmaton), and Ginkai (Lichtwer Pharma). The combination ginkgo/ginseng product used in the recent study was Ginkoba M/E (Pharmaton), which contains 100 mg of ginseng and 60 mg of ginkgo biloba extract per capsule.


To boost memory and enhance mental performance Take 120 mg of ginkgo biloba extract daily, divided into two doses. This may be combined with 200 mg ginseng extract, also divided into two doses.

For dementia resulting from Alzheimer’s disease or vascular disease: Take up to 240 mg of ginkgo biloba extract daily.

Date Posted: 09/07/2000

Date Published: 07/13/2005
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