How Does Bacopa Monnieri Help My Cognitive Function?
Bacopa Monnieri is in almost every high quality nootropic stack these days. It can supposedly do a whole ghost of wonderful things, such as improving memory, and protecting the brain from toxins.
What is Bacopa Monnieri? What does it really do, and how does it do it?
Are any of these claims even proven, or are they all just a load of hot air?
This page is hopefully able to clear up all of these questions. Read on to learn what Bacopa is, what it does to your brain, why it is such a great nootropic ingredient, and why you should be taking it.
What is Bacopa Monnieri?
Bacopa monnieri is a perenial herb indigenous to wetland areas in every corner of the earth, from Australia and India to Europe and America.
It is a creeping plant that has long been used in traditional Indian medicine, or in Ayurveda Medicine to be precise. In this context it is known as Brahmi, after Brahma – Hinduism’s God of creation. That should give you some idea as to the importance of this herb in traditional medicine.
In Ayuverda it has been used as a treatment for countless ailments, including ulcers, epilepsy, anemia, and asthma, and in other parts of the world it has been used as a general health-promoting herb.
However, traditional use and fantastical anecdotal tales don’t concern us here.
What we are concerned with is actually observed benefits, tested and recorded in clinical conditions, and well explained by a robustly tested theory.
Fortunately, the growth of the health supplements industry has added some serious fuel to the fire as far as research into nootropic herbs goes. We now have plenty of scientific data to draw on to evaluate the use of Bacopa monnieri as a nootropic, and we are learning more all the time.
How does it work?
You’ll find plenty of websites dedicated to nootropics shouting about the amazing benefits of Bacopa monnieri. But how many of them actually understand how it works?
Very few people take the trouble to explain how Bacopa monnieri actually works. That is in part because we are only just beginning to understand how it is able to deliver the cognitive enhancements that it does.
I am going to try to explain as fully as I can how Bacopa monnieri improves your cognitive performance, and why it delivers these improvements in such a gradual but lasting way.
Many experts agree that the main mechanism by which Bacopa monnieri seems to work is by stimulating neuronal dendritic growth.
One study published in the Romanian Journal of Morphology and Embryology found examined the effects of supplementing with an extract of Bacopa monniera on the dendritic morphology in adult rats of hippocampal CA3 neurons. This is one of the regions of the brain primarily concerned with learning and memory formation.
The study found “a significant increase in the dendritic intersections and dendritic branching points along the length of both apical and basal dendrites in rats treated with BM extract for four and six weeks”. The same group of rats also showed improvements in the performance of basic memory and spatial awareness tasks.
What is most interesting to me reading the results of this study is that the rats showed no extra dendritic growth after 2 weeks of supplementation. The benefits seem to begin some time between 2 and 4 weeks.
This fits nicely with my own experiences of taking Bacopa monnieri. The effects for me always got more pronounced over time, and tangible improvements in memory recall speed and retention only really became apparent after 40 days or so (30 day cycles with a week break seem to keep me at a consistently higher level).
Why is dendritic growth important?
Well, dendrite growth in the hippocampus is important for us if we’re looking to improve our memory in the long term, because dendrites are what nerve cells use to communicate with each other.
Put as simply as I can, dendrites are short branches that extend from nerve cell bodies. They facilitate electrochemical communication between neural cells by transferring signals from surrounding neurons to their own neuron cell body, or soma. This communication takes place via synapses.
More dendrites mean more efficient inter-neural communication. Allowing neurons to communicate better with each other in turn allows them to access, transmit, and process information at greater speed and efficiency.
This is absolutely crucial for all cognitive functions, memory included.
Neurons are communicative devices; without the ability to communicate with surrounding neurons, they are useless. They are in some ways analogous to the internet in this regard.
Memories are not stored in a single place in the brain. Rather, it seems that memories are distributed throughout a particular cluster of neurons. These neurons fire in a particular pattern when a certain memory is recalled. The firing of those neurons, and their ability to co-ordinate the information they are receiving and transmitting, must have an impact on how quickly and accurately that memory is stored and recalled.
Clearly, then, improving the ability of neurons to communicate with one another by facilitating dendrite growth will have an immediate and significant impact on memory formation and recall.
What about storage?
Well, it seems that memories are initially stored in the hippocampus, and as time goes on they are ‘transferred’ to the frontal cortex for long-term storage.
As far as initial learning is concerned then, we are primarily concerned with dendrite growth in the hippocampus, and that is precisely what Bacopa monnieri has been shown to deliver.
Is there another explanation?
While this all seems very straightforward, the mechanism by which Bacopa monnieri produces the benefits it does is not yet completely nailed down.
Dendrite growth seems to be the obvious answer, but there is one other way that Bacopa monnieri could produce the memory-boosting benefits we observe: serotoninergic interactions.
Evidence suggests that Bacopa monnieri supplementation has an effect on serotonin production. This in turn can have an effect on acetylcholine transmission, and we all know how much of an impact that can have on short-term memory formation and recall!
Bacopa monnieri also seems to be able to prevent serotonin and dopamine depletion during times of stress, which would obviously have a huge impact on your ability to focus, learn, and recall information when under pressure. Dopamine modulation in particular would have a positive impact on your ability to retain information under stress.
This is all very thin of course. The most robustly supported explanation for Bacopa’s memory-promoting properties is dendritic growth stimulation. The other effects mentioned here may indeed play a big role in Bacopa’s mechanism of action, but there are not enough studies to confirm this yet, and it is quite likely that these mechanisms are weak enough to be classed as “supportive” or “compounding” mechanisms.
Does it really improve memory function?
While I have discussed at length the mechanisms by which Bacopa monnieri is thought to work, I have only theorised about the consequences of those mechanisms for improving our memory function.
Are there any robust, scientific, clinical trials supporting the notions that I’ve put forward above?
Yes, yes there are. And plenty of them.
The journal Phytotherapy Research published a study in 2008 that tested two groups on cognitive performance using the Cognitive Drug Research assessment system after 90 days of a trial. The first group were given 2 x 150mg doses of KeenMind (a branded Bacopa extract), while the other group was given a placebo.
The researchers found that the Bacopa monnieri significantly improved working memory function after 90 days of supplementation.
Another study published in Psychopharmacology in 2001 found that Bacopa monnieri “may improve higher order cognitive processes that are critically dependent on the input of information from our environment such as learning and memory”.
This study was looking in particular at the effects of chronic supplementation, assessing individuals after 12 weeks of taking the herbal nootropic.
A completely natural, well-tested and seemingly side-effect free substance that has an incremental, sustainable and sizeable impact on our memory function is exactly what we should be looking for when we look for a nootropic supplement to take on a daily basis.
We always want the benefits to get more pronounced over time, and we never want anything to be overwhelming or powerful enough to be a burden. We also want benefits without the side effects. Above all else, we want something that will improve our cognitive performance when we need it most: invariably, this will mean when we need to retain a great deal of information when under great pressure.
Bacopa seems to deliver on all of these needs.
It is actually difficult to see how any supplement can play a more direct or compelling role in enhancing our memory than Bacopa monnieri. Since our ability to learn is so dependent on proper dendrite proliferation, the fact that Bacopa seems to directly promote dendrite growth makes it difficult to outshine when it comes to improving learning.
In fact, one study has been quite unequivocal in supporting this point.
Researchers found that a combination of Bacopa monnieri and ginseng was able to produce “cognition enhancing effects of similar magnitude to those from pharmaceutical interventions” (ref). The benchmark used for “pharmaceutical interventions” was Modafinil.
You read that right: Bacopa monnieri has been observed to enhance memory and overall cognition on a scale comparable to Modafinil; one of the most potent pharmaceutical smart drugs available!
In terms of natural nootropics, we can’t really ask for much more than that. With Bacopa we get all of the actual learning and memory benefits of Modafinil without any of the fireworks that people usually mistaken for effectiveness.
What else does Bacopa monnieri do?
Bacopa monnieri has been implicated in a wide range of other nootropic actions, including:
- Increasing cerebral blood flow, independently of systemic blood pressure (ref)
- Preventing age-related neuroinflammation (ref)
- Protecting brain cells from aluminium-induced cerebellar toxicity (ref)
- Preventing oxidative stress caused by methyl-mercury (which we consume a lot of through fish) (ref)
The list goes on and on, but I think those four, coupled with the myriad benefits explained above, should be more than sufficient to get across the enormous potential that this herbal extract represents for nootropic supplementation.
Bacopa monnieri not only acts as an active natural nootropic, promoting memory function by increasing the structural efficiency of the brain (or by improving acetylcholine transmission – more study needed), but it also acts as a passive natural nootropic, preventing oxidative and toxic damage to brain cells and promoting cerebral blood flow.
This is why we always point out the Bacopa monnieri content of products reviewed on this site. It should be a part of every daily natural nootropic stack.
Should I take Bacopa Monnieri?
Wether or not you should use a nootropic compound usually depends very much on your specific needs.
However, in the case of Bacopa monnieri, I think the benefits are holistic enough that anyone can benefit from taking it on a regular, if not daily basis.
Some people don’t need a caffeine boost, while others will really benefit from a well thought-out caffeine and theanine combination in their daily supplement stack. The same is true for many nootropic ingredients; event he ones I commonly refer to as ‘the best’ on this site.
But when it comes to Bacopa monnieri, I can’t think of a single reason why someone wouldn’t benefit from introducing this to their daily nootropic stack.
It’s properties influence so many aspects of cognition and overall brain health that you are bound to derive some benefit from this stuff if you take it on a regular basis for a period of 4 weeks or more (of course you should always immediately discontinue use of a supplement if you experience any side effects).
This is why we always look for Bacopa in a daily nootropic stack. We all want supplements that we can take on a daily basis without noticing their effects, with full confidence that we are making substantial changes to our cognitive abilities.
More importantly, we want changes that stick around. Nootropics are not about getting a quick boost for 30 minutes. They’re about getting the most out of your brain, maximising your cognitive performance over the long-term, so you are always operating at a higher level.
Bacopa seems very well placed to help you achieve that.