In our previous article, we discovered that the natural nootropic bacopa monnieri was found to produce pharmaceutical-strength results in the area of memory (specifically delayed word recall) when benchmarked against the powerful drug, Modafinil. At Tranquility Labs, we know about the memory enhancing and anti-anxiety effects of bacopa, which is why we use it in Focusene and Tranquilene respectively. Today, we want to dive into the memory benefits of bacopa and how it actually works in the brain.
What is Bacopa Monnieri?
Bacopa monnieri, also known as brahmi and water hyssop, is a plant that grows in wetlands all over the world. In the US, it tends to be found naturally in southern states like Florida and Hawaii. The plant “creeps” or spreads out along walls, lattice, or the ground between other plants.
Bacopa has been mentioned in medical texts for its cognitive benefits since the 6th century A.D. and been in use from at least 800 B.C. It’s a staple of traditional medicine throughout India, China, and many Asian countries. It has been used to treat many ailments including asthma, mental illness, sexual problems, fluid retention, and IBS. However, as with many traditional remedies, there is a lack of scientific evidence for much of the above. Fortunately, there is plenty of evidence for the effects and mechanisms of action that bacopa has on memory formation.
How Are Memories Formed?
Before we get into how bacopa improves memory, let’s look at the actual process of how memories are formed in the brain. The process is actually quite complicated and involves multiple areas of the brain and many different chemical systems. Below is an over-simplified but hopefully illuminating explanation.
In the brain, we have brain cells (neurons) and chemical “messengers” called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are compounds like amino acids, peptides, proteins, and enzymes; each specializing in delivering specific types of messages. These chemicals hang out in and around the neurons at the ends of the cell called the axon terminals. The axons send signals, and the dendrites receive them. Dendrites are stimulated by electrical signals – the “firing” of a neuron – which then tell the axon terminals to release their chemical neurotransmitters into the space between brain cells (synapse).
When our brain is repeatedly stimulated by the same thing – as in learning – the same pattern of electrical impulses travels across the network of neurons in the various areas of our brain. The same neurotransmitters are released and it becomes increasingly easy for the messages to travel across a path with each repetition. Resistance becomes less over time and eventually the memory is “wired” into our brain over a literal physical pathway of synchronously firing neuron connections. This process is called “long-term potentiation” and it’s how we form lasting memories.
So, how does Bacopa help? Bacopa assists in this process by boosting the molecules of the serotonergic, dopaminergic, cholinergic, and glutaminergic neurotransmitter systems; all of which are involved in some way with learning and memory. Or more simply, Bacopa turbo-charges the chemicals you use to think and remember.
Bacopa the Nootropic Brain Booster
In controlled tests, Bacopa has been shown to increase the production of serotonin in rodents, while decreasing dopamine and having some effect on acetylcholine. It appears to increase the amount of certain serotonin precursors, and the number of serotonin transport sites on the neurons. This means there is more serotonin to go around and more transport sites for it to pass through. You may have heard of serotonin for its effect on mood, but the serotonergic system also plays a role in associative learning and sleep. Serotonin is extremely critical to how you notice your brain working.
Another potential explanation for the increase in learning performance and memory retention could be an increase in the amount and length of brain cell dendrites. Imagine an octopus lying flat with its arms spread out around it. This octopus is a top down view of a neuron. Now imagine it sprouting more arms, then those arms sprouting arms, and all of them getting longer and longer. This new animal is like a neuron on bacopa. The additional arms provide more robust pathways for long-term potentiation of memories. However, these changes are not observed (in rodents) until after a minimum of two weeks of taking bacopa.
Bacopa’s strength as a nootropic appears to be assisting with the formation of new memories, reduced forgetfulness in short term tasks, and retention of memories. These effects appear to max out around 12 weeks of 300mg daily supplementation in humans.
Scientists have also experimented with bacopa’s anti-amnesic effects. It has been shown to have a reversing effect on amnesia when induced in rodents. The amnesiac drug scopolamine causes the brain to produce less of a handful of enzymes in the cholinergic system responsible for creating memories. Bacopa reverses the effect on some of the down-regulated enzymes (calmodulin) re-enabling memory formation.
One of the Most Heavily Studied Medicinal Herbs
Like a lot of traditional medicines bacopa has many additional effects that are only recently being scientifically demonstrated. Bacopa has been shown to have antidepressant effects in mice. It has been noted to reduce anxiety in humans in multiple studies. It is a neuroprotective agent, reducing and protecting against inflammation and oxidative stress. It has potential as an anti-tumorigenic agent. A recent study from November 2015 even showed bacopa to be more effective than aspirin for pain reduction (in rodents) prompting a call for further research into its pain killing potential.
Bacopa is one of the most heavily studied medicinal herbs. Over the past 20 years a lot of groundwork has been laid towards figuring out the mechanisms of action of bacopa, as well as, enabling further human trials. Though we expect there will be many more to come, we were surprised to find so few human trials for something so demonstrably safe and well studied; with gastrointestinal discomfort being one of the only notable side effects. It’s clear even from a focus on its memory benefits, that there is a lot of complex brain chemistry going on around this one little plant. It’s also clear that daily supplementation of bacopa has multiple positive effects on brain health.