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Tuesday, 20 August, 2002, 23:46 GMT 00:46 UK
Ginkgo 'does not improve memory'
Ginkgo - memory boost claims questioned
The herbal extract ginkgo biloba does not boost memory as had previously been suggested, researchers say.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no significant difference between the mental functions of elderly people taking ginkgo and those taking a dummy pill.

Ginkgo biloba is used across the world as a way of enhancing memory and other mental functions.

It is an extract from the ginkgo tree, and has been used in medicine for almost 5,000 years.

Some studies have suggested it could help treat symptoms of dementia.

Ginkgo provides no measurable benefit in memory, attention or concentration in healthy older adults

Paul Solomon, Williams College
The study was carried out by researchers at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and The Memory Clinic in Bennington, Vermont.

They said people attending the clinic were keen to know if ginkgo could slow or reverse the effects of ageing on memory, and there was no rigorous scientific study which gave a conclusive answer, leading them to conduct their own.

Mental tests

They studied 230 people over 60 who were mentally and physically healthy.

Each was given 14 tests of learning, memory, and attention and concentration.

People close to them, such as husbands and wives or close friends were then asked to assess their mental functions.

The participants were then divided into two groups, one which was given ginkgo and the other a dummy pill.

Neither they, nor the researchers knew who was given what.

The study lasted for six weeks - manufacturers claim beneficial effects can be seen after four.

At the end of the study, participants retook the tests they had completed at its start and people close to them reassessed their mental functions.

Researchers found no significant differences between those taking ginkgo and those taking the dummy pills on any of the objective or subjective measures.

Personal decision

Paul Solomon, professor of psychology at Williams College, who led the research, said: "Our results indicate that when taken following the manufacturer's instructions, ginkgo provides no measurable benefit in memory, attention, or concentration in healthy older adults.

"We hope others will now further test ginkgo and other vitamins and nutrients to see if they really provide the benefits they claim."

He added: "As with any over-the-counter substance, people taking ginkgo, or thinking of taking it, have to decide for themselves what's right but they owe it to themselves to inform that decision with knowledge of scientific studies.

"They also need to consider cost and possible side effects, especially if taken with medication or other substances."

Dr Richard Harvey is director of research for the UK's Alzheimer's Society - which is funding two major pieces of research into the use of ginkgo to treat dementia.

He told BBC News Online: "Memory or 'cognitive' enhancement for normal healthy older people is currently a hot topic - can we overcome the gradual slow decline in memory by taking memory-boosting treatments?

"This new study seems to suggest that ginkgo does not have memory boosting effects for healthy elderly people. This is exactly what one would expect given what we know about how ginkgo works."

He said the focus of the research had been very narrow and ginkgo could have an effect which this study had missed.

He added: "If ginkgo does do anything for healthy older people, then it would be more likely to show an ability to protect people against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's - not something that could be seen in this short term research."

Margaret Pete, of the GNC chain of shops which sells herbal remedies, told the BBC: "There have been over 125 different pieces of research done that have proved ginkgo biloba is effective."

But Sarah Schenker, a dietician from the British Nutrition Foundation, said: "There's no doubt that ginkgo has a physiological effect on the body.

"But what hasn't been shown is that it does confer these benefits such as boosting memory."

See also:

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