In Need of a Memory Boost? Reach for the Spice Rack!

Scientists have raided the kitchen cupboard as part of their never-ending effort to prevent memory decline in older adults, and they’ve come up with evidence that certain herbs and spices that we use every day may help improve memory and other brain functions.

One recent study has associated the herb rosemary with dramatically improved memory performance in human volunteers. Researchers assigned 33 adults to a rosemary-scented room, and a control group of 33 other adults to an odorless room. All study participants took memory and blood tests and were asked to remember a series of future tasks, such as giving a particular object to a researcher at a particular time, according to a presentation at the British Psychological Society annual meeting on April 8, 2013.

The scientists found that, compared to those who had not been exposed to the scent, rose-mary-exposed participants were 60 to 75 percent more likely to remember the future tasks, had bet-ter memory for past events and faster recall, and had higher blood levels of a compound found in the herb that positively affects biochemical systems related to memory. The findings support earlier work by the same team of researchers that found a strong link between exposure to rosemary oil and im-provements in long-term memory and mental arithmetic.

“Many cultures have a history of using herbs and spices in traditional medicines to prevent memory loss or strengthen memory performance,” says David Mischoulon, MD, PhD, Director of Research and Alternative Remedy Studies at MGH’s Depression Clinical and Research Program. “This small study provides preliminary evidence that one herb, rosemary, may in fact have positive effects on memory.”

7 brain boosters

Studies have also linked other common seasonings—including sage, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cilantro—with brain benefits. However, Dr. Miscoulon cautions that much of this research is based on in vitro work in the laboratory, research with animals, or preliminary research with small groups of humans. Until larger studies are performed and validated, it’s not possible to conclude definitively that these herbs and spices benefit memory, he says.

“On the other hand, since these seasonings are natural products with a long history of consumption by humans, they are most likely safe when used in modest quantities such as those associated with foods and teas,” he says. “I would recommend checking with a medical care provider before using them in larger quantities or as regular memory supplements to ensure that they don’t interact with a medication or negatively affect a medical condition. Spices and herbs can also cause nausea, diarrhea, and other side effects in some sensitive individuals if con-sumed in large amounts.”


In addition to the research already described, other studies have suggested that rosemary may speed information processing in the brain and improve mood. Its benefits are thought to be associated with the herb’s powerful antioxidant effects and its ability to increase brain levels of acetylcholine, a very important neurotransmitter involved in brain processes such as learning and memory, thinking, and concentrating.


Another common herb linked to improved memory performance, sage contains an-ti-inflammatory and antioxidant chemicals that benefit brain cells. This herb, like rosemary, is linked with increases in acetylcholine. Sage is also thought to reduce levels of beta-amyloid plaque, a hall-mark of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). In a 2010 study conducted by the Medicinal Plant Re-search Centre in England, the memory performance of volunteers who took sage-oil pills was com-pared to that of volunteers who took placebo. The volunteers given sage oil performed significantly better on a word recall test than the control group.


An animal study published in 2011 found that rats fed the ground leaves of cilantro (or coriander) learned better than rats on a cilantro-free diet and performed significantly better on a maze-running task than the control rats. The animals’ memory performance was directly proportional to the amount of cilantro they were fed, with larger intake resulting in better performance. Cilantro is a powerful antioxidant that lowers cholesterol and raises levels of acetylcholine.


A seasoning popular in the cuisines of Mexico and India, this plant seed has been shown in animal studies to increase learning speed and memory retention, and help prevent memory loss. It raises levels of acetylcholine in a manner that is proportional to the amount consumed, according to research conducted on laboratory rats and published in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Biolo-gy in 2011.


Some studies suggest that this popular spice based on the bark of the cinnamon tree is a powerhouse remedy that combines antioxidant and antimicrobial effects with the capacity to lower artery clogging levels of “bad” cholesterol that can reduce blood flow to the brain. Other studies have linked the spice with improved cognition and reduced chronic brain inflammation associ-ated with diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, AD, and other neurological disorders. A study published in 2013 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease suggests that chemicals in cinnamon may help prevent the formation of neurofibrillary tangles that are an important hallmark of AD.


A component called curcumin found in this common yellow curry spice is credited with an-ti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that help prevent the free-radical damage to brain cells associated with neurological disorders. Animal research suggests that the spice may protect against the formation of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain, and human studies have found that the spice is linked to some memory improvement in individuals with AD. In India, where turmeric is widely consumed, the prevalence of AD among adults in their 70s is 4.4 times less than the prevalence among Americans of the same age.


The seed of an Indonesian evergreen tree, this spice has been associated with memory improvements in mice. Research published in the Journal of Neuroimunology in 2009 suggested that one type of nutmeg reduced inflammation and protected brain cells from damage in tissue cultures and also promoted the growth of brain tissue that had been injured by short-term restrictions of glucose and oxygen, such as those associated with stroke. Still other research found that myristicin, a compound contained in nutmeg, inhibits a brain enzyme involved in the development of AD.

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