Objective: We review the experimental evaluations of several widely marketed nonprescription compounds claimed to be memory enhancers and treatments for age-related memory decline. We generally limit our review to double-blind placebo-controlled studies. The compounds examined are phosphatidylserine (PS), phosphatidylcholine (PC), citicoline, piracetam, vinpocetine, acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC), and antioxidants (particularly vitamin E).
Results: In animals, PS has been shown to attenuate many neuronal effects of aging, and to restore normal memory on a variety of tasks. Preliminary findings with humans, though, are limited. For older adults with probable Alzheimer's disease, a single study failed to demonstrate positive effects of PS on memory performance. For older adults with moderate cognitive impairment, PS has produced consistently modest increases in recall of word lists. Positive effects have not been as consistently reported for other memory tests. There is one report of consistent benefits across a number of memory tests for a subset of normal adults who performed more poorly than their peers at baseline. The choline compounds PC and citicoline are thought to promote synthesis and transmission of neurotransmitters important to memory. PC has not proven effective for improving memory in patients with probable Alzheimer's disease. The issue remains open for older adults without serious degenerative neural disease. Research on citicoline is practically nonexistent, but one study reported a robust improvement in story recall for a small sample of normally aging older adults who scored lower than their peers in baseline testing. Animal studies suggest that piracetam may improve neuronal efficiency, facilitate activity in neurotransmitter systems, and combat the age-related decrease in receptors on the neuronal membrane. However, for patients with probable Alzheimer's disease, as well as for adults with age-associated memory impairment, there is no clear-cut support for a mnemonic benefit of piracetam. Vinpocetine increases blood circulation and metabolism in the brain. Animal studies have shown that vinpocetine can reduce the loss of neurons due to decreased blood flow. In three studies of older adults with memory problems associated with poor brain circulation or dementia-related disease, vinpocetine produced significantly more improvement than a placebo in performance on global cognitive tests reflecting attention, concentration, and memory. Effects on episodic memory per se have been tested minimally, if at all. ALC participates in cellular energy production, a process especially important in neurons, and in removal of toxic accumulation of fatty acids. Animal studies show that ALC reverses the age-related decline in the number of neuron membrane receptors. Studies of patients with probable Alzheimer's disease have reported nominal advantages over a range of memory tests for ALC-treated patients relative to placebo groups. Significant differences have been reported rarely, however. Whether ALC would have mnemonic benefits for aging adults without brain disease is untested as far as we know. Antioxidants help neutralize tissue-damaging free radicals, which become more prevalent as organisms age. It is hypothesized that increasing antioxidant levels in the organism might retard or reverse the damaging effects of free radicals on neurons. Thus far, however, studies have found that vitamin E does not significantly slow down memory decline for Alzheimer's patients and does not produce significant memory benefits among early Parkinson's patients. Neither did a combination of vitamins E and C significantly improve college students' performance on several cognitive tasks.
Conclusions: In sum, for most of the "brain-specific" nutrients we review, some mildly suggestive effects have been found in preliminary controlled studies using standard psychometric memory assessments or more general tests designed to reveal cognitive impairment. We suggest that future evaluations of the possible memory benefits of these supplements might fruitfully focus on memory processes rather than on memory tests per se.