The psychopharmacology of European herbs with cognition-enhancing properties

Curr Pharm Des. 2006;12(35):4613-23. doi: 10.2174/138161206779010387.


Extensive research suggests that a number of plant-derived chemicals and traditional Oriental herbal remedies possess cognition-enhancing properties. Widely used current treatments for dementia include extracts of Ginkgo biloba and several alkaloidal, and therefore toxic, plant-derived cholinergic agents. Several non-toxic, European herbal species have pan-cultural traditions as treatments for cognitive deficits, including those associated with ageing. To date they have not received research interest commensurate with their potential utility. Particularly promising candidate species include sage (Salvia lavandulaefolia/officinalis), Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). In the case of sage, extracts possess anti-oxidant, estrogenic, and anti-inflammatory properties, and specifically inhibit butyryl- and acetyl-cholinesterase. Acute administration has also been found to reliably improve mnemonic performance in healthy young and elderly cohorts, whilst a chronic regime has been shown to attenuate cognitive declines in sufferers from Alzheimer's disease. In the case of Melissa officinalis, extracts have, most notably, been shown to bind directly to both nicotinic and muscarinic receptors in human brain tissue. This property has been shown to vary with extraction method and strain. Robust anxiolytic effects have also been demonstrated following acute administration to healthy humans, with mnemonic enhancement restricted to an extract with high cholinergic binding properties. Chronic regimes of aromatherapy and essential oil respectively have also been shown to reduce agitation and attenuate cognitive declines in sufferers from dementia. Given the side effect profile of prescribed cholinesterase inhibitors, and a current lack of a well tolerated nicotinic receptor agonist, these herbal treatments may well provide effective and well-tolerated treatments for dementia, either alone, in combination, or as an adjunct to conventional treatments.

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / drug therapy
  • Animals
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents / pharmacology
  • Antioxidants / pharmacology
  • Aromatherapy
  • Behavior / drug effects
  • Behavior, Animal / drug effects
  • Cholinesterase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Cognition / drug effects*
  • Europe
  • Humans
  • Melissa*
  • Nootropic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Nootropic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Phytoestrogens / pharmacology
  • Plant Extracts / pharmacology
  • Plants, Medicinal
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Receptors, Cholinergic / drug effects
  • Rosmarinus*
  • Salvia officinalis*


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Antioxidants
  • Cholinesterase Inhibitors
  • Nootropic Agents
  • Phytoestrogens
  • Plant Extracts
  • Receptors, Cholinergic