Nutritional Supplements and Brain Fitness

Well, the idea that you can just pop a pill to improve your mem­o­ry and atten­tion lost some ground today.

The Asso­ci­at­ed Press released an arti­cle on DHEA, a steroid pre­cur­sor to testos­terone and estro­gen used to improve ath­let­ic per­for­mance, increase sex dri­ve, and reduce fat as well as fight dia­betes and heart dis­ease. The con­clu­sion of a two-year study at the Mayo Clin­ic in Min­neso­ta and Uni­ver­si­ty of Pad­ua in Italy was that it did not improve strength, phys­i­cal per­for­mance, or oth­er mea­sures of health. The pos­i­tive news was:

No harm­ful side effects were detect­ed. That is good news, but it does not mean the sup­ple­ments are alto­geth­er safe, said Simon Yeung, man­ag­er of the Web site on sup­ple­ments and inte­gra­tive med­i­cine at the Memo­r­i­al Sloan-Ket­ter­ing Can­cer Cen­ter in New York.

Glad to hear it’s not harm­ful, but not an over­whelm­ing endorse­ment either! Fur­ther­more, some pri­or research sug­gests “DHEA car­ries risks and may cause side effects.” I would­n’t run to the store just yet to get DHEA supplements.

Gink­go bilo­ba is anoth­er over-the-counter mem­o­ry-enhanc­ing sup­ple­ment we have heard a lot about recent­ly. Paul Solomon from Williams Col­lege found “these data sug­gest that when tak­en fol­low­ing the man­u­fac­tur­er’s instruc­tions, gink­go pro­vides no mea­sur­able ben­e­fit in mem­o­ry or relat­ed cog­ni­tive func­tion to adults with healthy cog­ni­tive func­tion.” Nicholas Burns from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ade­laide, Aus­tralia just pub­lished his results from a dou­ble-blind, place­bo-con­trolled study assess­ing the effects of gink­go on a wide range of mea­sures of cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, exec­u­tive func­tion, atten­tion and mood in healthy 55–79 year olds as well as 18–43 year olds. He found longer-term mem­o­ry improved in the old­er pop­u­la­tion, but no improve­ment on any oth­er mea­sure for either the younger or old­er par­tic­i­pants. On a pos­i­tive note, the report­ed side effects were mild. Sarah Elsabagh from King’s Col­lege Lon­don found gink­go improved atten­tion and mem­o­ry in the short term. How­ev­er, there were no ben­e­fits after 6 weeks, sug­gest­ing that a tol­er­ance devel­ops quick­ly. Again, not an over­whelm­ing endorsement.

And what about the omega‑3 fat­ty acids found in cold-water fish such as mack­er­el, her­ring, salmon, and tuna? They fare bet­ter with Giu­liano Fontani’s work at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Siena in Italy. He asso­ci­at­ed omega‑3 sup­ple­men­ta­tion with an improve­ment of atten­tion­al and phys­i­o­log­i­cal func­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly those involv­ing com­plex cor­ti­cal pro­cess­ing. He con­cludes his study by saying:

This was shown by the improve­ment of reac­tiv­i­ty, atten­tion and cog­ni­tive per­for­mances in addi­tion to the improve­ment of mood state and the mod­i­fi­ca­tions of some neu­ro-elec­tri­cal para­me­ters. These results have been obtained from a small study group and need fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion in a wider group of sub­jects and in par­tic­u­lar for the pos­si­ble influ­ences of age and gender.

While the news looks promis­ing for omega‑3 fat­ty acids, there are still many out­stand­ing ques­tions and more research needs to be done.

What can you do right now? Eat a bal­anced diet, get plen­ty of phys­i­cal exer­cise, stay cog­ni­tive­ly active, and reduce your stress. And as always, talk with your doc­tor about any con­cerns. Com­bine these things, and you should stay healthy and active well into your lat­er years.

Fur­ther Links
Class­es on Brain Fitness
Brain Gyms Explained
Phys­i­cal Fit­ness and Brain Fitness
Man­ag­ing Stress


  1. Yuchun Ku on November 16, 2006 at 12:47

    Thanks for mak­ing these infor­ma­tion avail­able. My rel­a­tives in Tai­wan told me that Gink­go bilo­ba becomes pop­u­lar in Tai­wan because the rumor says that it will help pre­vent mem­o­ry loss. It is pop­u­lar and expen­sive in Taiwan. 

    I can tell my rel­a­tives that they can save this mon­ey for some­thing else with more proven results.

  2. Caroline on November 20, 2006 at 10:58


    I’m glad we pro­vid­ed some use­ful infor­ma­tion for you! 

    But, nev­er under­es­ti­mate the pow­er of the place­bo effect. Although the research does­n’t sup­port at real effect with gink­go, it may work for some peo­ple because it pro­vides the expec­ta­tion that it will work. If you feel more atten­tive, you will remem­ber more by virtue of pay­ing more atten­tion. But they can also get that effect for much less by going for a walk, get­ting enough rest, reduc­ing stress, and eat­ing well.

  3. Capt. Jean-Luc Pikachu on March 21, 2007 at 11:05

    I real­ize it’s only been 5 months, but do you know if any­one has fol­lowed up on Fontani’s request for more research on Omega‑3?

  4. Caroline on April 20, 2007 at 9:42

    Cap­tain Pikachu,

    If you’re look­ing for more read­ing, I rec­om­mend start­ing with this excel­lent blog post writ­ten by Dr. Simon Evans on omega‑3 and omega‑6 fats. 

    Here are also some links to recent arti­cles on essen­tial fat­ty acids:
    Omega 3 fat­ty acids influ­ence mood, impul­siv­i­ty and per­son­al­i­ty, study indicates
    Car­dio­vas­cu­lar effects of omega‑3 free Fat­ty acid
    Roles of unsat­u­rat­ed fat­ty acids (espe­cial­ly omega‑3 fat­ty acids) in the brain at var­i­ous ages and dur­ing ageing

    Hap­py reading!

  5. Martin on October 6, 2007 at 11:32

    Eat a bal­anced diet, get plen­ty of phys­i­cal exer­cise, stay cog­ni­tive­ly active, and reduce your stress. And as always, talk with your doc­tor about any con­cerns. Com­bine these things, and you should stay healthy and active well into your lat­er years.”

    My father did these as well as earn 3 col­lege degrees and he still got sick with Alzheimer’s.

  6. Alvaro on October 7, 2007 at 3:36

    Hel­lo Mar­tin, I am sor­ry about your father, and the grow­ing inci­dence of Alzheimer’s in gen­er­al, giv­en our aging population.

    What Car­o­line was writ­ing about is gen­er­al advice that has been shown to reduce the prob­a­bil­i­ty of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s symp­toms. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, there is noth­ing that can ful­ly pre­vent the dis­ease in indi­vid­ual cas­es, but lifestyle habits that can reduce the probability.


  7. Vintagechic on July 21, 2008 at 2:38

    A lit­tle late to answer, I guess. But, I find this study sur­pris­ing as some­one dear to me was in a Gingko study years ago. And he showed a rapid and incred­i­ble change in his mem­o­ry. And went from dod­der­ing and inco­her­ent to dri­ving his car again & car­ry­ing on con­ver­sa­tion, in a few short weeks. I would won­der if the study is try­ing to sell fish oil. Or, if the study used a poor­ly made prod­uct in it’s testing…or any oth­er num­ber of things. But, I still believe in Gingko.

  8. Alvaro on July 22, 2008 at 5:02

    Vin­tagechic, let me under­stand your com­ment. You are try­ing to dis­cred­it a large and well-con­trolled study based on the sto­ry of one person? 

    You are of course free to believe in what­ev­er you choose to and spend your mon­ey as you wish. The place­bo effect may explain why belief itself is not such a bad thing.

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SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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