Do Memory Enhancing Supplements Work?

ByVeronica Holland

B O S T O N, Dec. 3, 2001 -- Ever have a "senior moment" and wonder if an herbal memory enhancer could help? Experts can't tell for sure if they will.

Popular "memory-boosting" supplements such as Focus Factor, Cognita with huperzine and Senior Moment — part of a $140 million-a-year industry for such supplements — all claim to promote more efficient memory, concentration and overall mental functioning.

But little scientific support for the claims emerged from an informal ABCNEWS survey of more than a dozen top experts on aging, Alzheimer's disease, drug safety and brain research.

"While there are reasons to believe that some of the ingredients might work, there is no convincing scientific evidence that they do work to improve or forestall normal age related memory losses," said Dr. Bruce Cohen, president and psychiatrist in chief at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. "There are studies under way of some of the ingredients, but it is too early to predict whether any will be safe and effective."

Small-Scale Evidence of Benefit

Experts agree there is some evidence of benefit for a few of the ingredients, such as choline, found in Focus Factor, which increases a key nervous system neurotransmitter in rats, but has yet to be proven in clinical trials to boost levels in humans.

Dr. Sid Gilman, professor and chair of the department of neurology at the University of Michigan, concurs. "There is no current evidence provided by rigorous double-blind placebo controlled clinical trials that any of these substances can improve memory in the aging brain," he said.

In statements to ABCNEWS, the companies that make the supplements defended their claims despite the lack of clinical trials. They cited previous studies conducted on specific ingredients.

ABCNEWS' Dr.Tim Johnson noted that the companies admit they have not studied their products in careful double-blind trials, but that they plan to start such studies in the near future.

"That seems to me like putting the cart before the horse," said Johnson. "But we don't have actual studies of these products per se to say that they're going to do what they claim."

Firms Cite Benefits of Ingredients

According to Senior Moment's Nutramax Labs representative Paul Deblinger, the company evaluated literature on the supplements' two ingredients — phospholipids and docosahexaenoic acid or DHA.

"We saw the merit in brain function by evaluating the published research, and then chose the identical ingredients purchased from the identical companies used in most of this research for inclusion in Senior Moment," he explained, adding: "Therefore, it is scientifically reasonable to bridge from the data on the individual ingredients to the combination in Senior Moment."

Deblinger said the company plans to follow the formal testing plan of both human and veterinary studies used in testing their popular osteoarthritis supplement, CosaminDS.

The maker of Focus Factor says it also looked at previous studies in developing their product. "The available scientific evidence provides ample support for the statements made regarding the dietary supplement Focus Factor," said the company's Rob Graham.

Focus Factor, produced by Vital Basics, is currently being tested in a double-blind placebo controlled clinical trial. The company expects the results in the spring of 2002.

Buyer Beware

A statement by General Nutrition Center, a national retailer of vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements, said that the ingredients in Preventive Nutrition Cognita contains well-known ingredients backed by research. It also goes on to say is has "not made any claims to the consumer about this product that are based on that research and will not do so until the research is finalized and reviewed."

GNC's statement added that "GNC formulated Cognita is based on numerous published studies that have been conducted on the individual ingredients. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."

Still, "memory-boosting" supplements are on the market, despite the disagreement between some doctors and the supplement makers about their effectiveness. That's because Congress made these products exempt from Food and Drug Administration approval, said ABCNEWS' Johnson.

"These kinds of products, over-the-counter supplements, food supplements, don't have to be submitted to the FDA for evidence of either effectiveness or safety before they're marketed," said Johnson. "So, really it is a case of buyer beware."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events