Ginseng has been used in herbal medicine for hundreds of years, for various health benefits. Among those, perhaps most famously, ginseng has been used for mental acuity and memory function.
Improving mental ability and memory recall is important to many Americans, with one study pointing to nearly a quarter of us taking some kind of brain supplement. The industry of nootropics is expected to grow to $6 Billion in the next year. Finding a viable solution to memory impairment in a readily available supplement could save consumers millions.
✲ The memory and mental effects of ginseng are among the most studied of all its benefits.
✲ Evidence for ginseng’s memory boosting ability has mounted to nearly irrefutable levels.
✲ The means by which ginseng is improving memory are becoming better understood and predictable.
✲ Memory improvement may extend to treating degenerative brain diseases.
Given the plethora of ginseng studies, I was able to limit this review to only human studies. No studies reported any negative results. That is to say, all studies reported significant memory improvement in participants using Panax ginseng as a memory supplement.
Evidence for memory improvement didn’t rely on patient reporting, which is an important factor to consider. People who know they are in a test may want to report better results than they actually encountered. One study had randomized, double-blind testing–where neither the testers nor the participants knew who had ginseng and who had sugar pills–reported results based on actual electronic monitoring of the brains.
In this study, among the other tests, participants were placed under electrode monitoring while given a series of memory related tasks. The results supported the findings from animal studies, that short term, task-oriented memory was improved.
Not only did participants perform better in the ginseng group, but scans showed decreased latency in the brian performance (related to how long it takes signals to pass through neurons). Importantly, the study didn’t find any correlation to fine motor skills. This means that the participants were merely seeing better ‘muscle-memory’ functionality, where their fingers were responding to the tasks because of better hand-eye-coordination: rather, their actual short term memory had improved.
Another study using a large sample size of humans with mild impairment were given ginseng over the course of six months. After the end of the trial, patients not only had better immediate recall, but even demonstrated better memory recall in a 20 minute delay test–and even had significantly better visual learning and memory.
Each of the studies I’ve linked to in this review in their own turn cite dozens of other trials and tests proving the efficacy of ginseng in improving memory and mental function. It was important that I found articles that do not cite themselves, or too similar articles as each other, because in this way we are able to see a web of over one hundred studies demonstrating these results.
These memory results are consistent from human trial to human trial, from animal studies, and even in longitudinal studies (more on that in the last section).
Results have been so consistent, that many of the studies linked here are able to hypothesize their results based on other clinical evidence. This means each study coming out is more refined, and their results more compelling.
Refined Study of Active Components
One such study has been able to build off of the evidence and look into the actual mechanisms improving memory. Below, we’ll look at each of the mechanisms this meta analysis was able to discern.
Cisplatin-induced Memory Loss
Anyone working their way through cancer treatment knows that the effects of radiation and chemotherapy can be devastating. One of the most painful side effects is memory loss due to a substance called cisplatin.
Cisplatin is important in killing cancer cells, but its effects on brain cells can be just as damaging, resulting in some cases of severe memory impairment. This process can be combated by a ginsenoside (compound found in ginseng) called Rb1. Rb1 was able to work three different ways to improve memory at the cellular level in the brain, partly by reducing inflammation, partly by actually regenerating cell growth in the hippocampus region of the brain.
Improved Synaptic Response
Synapses are the junction of neurons in the brain, and the faster a synapse can fire, the better the brain performs. In one study, scientists were able to prove that ginsenoside Re was able to significantly improve the synaptic response in test cases.
These synaptic responses could very well be responsible for what researchers in the short-term memory behavior tests see. By improving our short-term brain function, short-term memory would also improve.
I couldn’t find a more eloquent way to put it than the researchers did themselves. Ginsenosides Rh1, Rh2, and Rh3 were all seen to stimulate the hippocampus of the brain to a point that scientists actually use the word excited. This has important implications in humans.
The hippocampus is responsible for nearly all learning and memory. In addition to that, it can be seriously impaired by diabetes, obesity, depression, hypertension, and sleep apnea–all serious and all-too common problems in America.
If ginseng can be relied upon to help regenerate and excite the hippocampus, it could be a revelation in the treatment of illnesses that affect millions of Americans.
Lifetime Ginseng and Degenerative Brain Diseases
Dozens of other studies have been reviewed to determine the exact way ginseng may be helping blood sugar levels, and the theories range from oxidation of certain compounds in our digestive tract to inflammation. One study even looked at the interplay of diabetes and stroke, and how ginseng could mitigate those casualties.
The conclusion of these other studies, however, is that more research needs to be done on these specific and isolated functions.
These data have not been contraindicated by any known study. Unlike in other ginseng fields (weight loss, blood sugar, etc.), there have been no known controversies, side effects, lack of study, or other doubts cast on the positive effects of ginseng on memory and brain function.
Other reviews will be forthcoming to determine the efficacy of ginseng on motor-skills, mental acuity, and of course on Alzheimer’s disease. Respecting memory, however, while research continues in the name of better science, the evidence has compelling indicated that Panax ginseng can indeed improve memory–short-term, long-term, and over a whole life time.