What Are Memory Supplements?

The term memory supplement can actually refer to a variety of different products containing nootropic ingredients.  Nootropics are substances that through a number of different pathways, help to improve brain function.  

While they can potentially affect several different mental processes, one element of brain function that a number of different substances have been purported to enhance is memory.  

From helping to prevent the onset of dementia in the elderly, to improving working memory in healthy, middle-aged adults, all sorts of different benefits have been associated with memory supplements.  

But what’s true and what’s not when it comes to their efficacy?  

Do Memory Supplements Actually Work?

The reality is that memory supplements can contain a wide variety of different ingredients and some have been researched more thoroughly than others.  

Some substances have been well investigated and found to be effective in animal studies but their efficacy has yet to be thoroughly demonstrated in human trials.  Other substances have been well-demonstrated in human trials involving those with cognitive impairments but their effects on healthy young and middle-aged adults have yet to be thoroughly analyzed by researchers.

Only a small number of memory supplement ingredients have been thoroughly investigated in younger, healthy adults.  Of those that have, there are mixed findings for most — that is, some studies demonstrated positive effects, while others did not. 

In some cases, however, a lack of significant findings may be a result of poor study design — like using an insufficient dosage — as opposed to the actual substance being ineffective.  In other cases, mixed findings can simply be due to the fact that only a small number of human trials have been conducted.  

In the following section, we’ll be focusing on substances that have been explored in human trials, including those with findings that aren’t necessarily conclusive. 

Memory Supplement Ingredients With Evidence of Efficacy

Photo by Anna Shvets

B Vitamins

B vitamins are essential nutrients that play a critical role in energy metabolism within the human body.  Amongst other things, they help to maintain the normal function of your brain by helping to provide it with the energy it needs to properly function.  

Some research shows that b vitamins may help to improve memory in humans but this may only be in cases in which a deficiency is present — older folks are much more likely to be deficient in vitamins like b12 as the body’s ability to absorb these kinds of nutrients declines with age.   Few if any studies have examined the effects of b vitamin supplementation on memory in healthy, younger adults.  

With that being said, a number of different studies have demonstrated that b12 deficiency can lead to declines in cognitive function.(1) In addition to increasing the chances of depression and other mood-related conditions, vitamin b12 deficiency has also been associated with memory impairment. 

True, research shows that b12 supplementation can help to improve memory in individuals with deficiencies, however, the same memory-enhancing effects have yet to be clearly demonstrated in healthy, non-deficient adults.  

Bacopa Monnieri

Bacopa Monnieri is a natural compound derived from a plant of the same.  It’s been used in traditional Indian medicine for hundreds of years, where its memory-enhancing properties have become well known.  

Bacopa functions primarily as a neurotransmitter modulator, helping to increase your body’s production of acetylcholine, which is an important brain chemical vital to several aspects of mental function, including your working memory.  

It’s been relatively well-research and a number of different studies involving bacopa supplementation in healthy adults have demonstrated positive and significant effects on memory.(2)(3)

For example, a 2008 double-blind, placebo-controlled study examined the effects of bacopa supplementation on 107 healthy adults.(4) Over the course of 90 days, half of the study participants were given a daily dose of bacopa monnieri, while the other half were given only a placebo.  

All subjects were tested at baseline and at the conclusion of the 90-day trial using a standardized memory assessment test.  The researchers found that compared to baseline, the bacopa group saw significant improvements in their working memory, while the placebo group saw no such changes.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a psychoactive substance naturally found in coffee beans and tea leaves; it’s also found in a variety of different dietary products, including memory supplements.  It’s amongst the most well-researched substances on the planet, with countless journal articles written on its effects.   

Caffeine functions primarily in an inhibitory role, helping to prevent the messenger molecule adenosine from signaling to your body that you’re fatigued.  Some research shows that this many, in turn, help to boost your memory, particularly in stressful situations.  

For instance, using a series of cognitive assessment tests, a 2001 study published in Human Psychopharmacology, ultimately found that habitual caffeine consumption was significantly associated with better long-term memory performance. (5)

Another study involving elderly participants found that compared to a placebo group, who saw declines in-memory performance from morning to afternoon, those who ingested caffeine were actually able to maintain their memories into the afternoon, demonstrating no evidence of decline.(6)

However, several human trials have also failed to demonstrate similar results.  For example, a 1999 study ultimately concluded that caffeine had no significant effect on any measure of memory evaluated in the study.(7)

Choline

Choline is an essential nutrient that plays an important role in cognition, helping to provide your brain with the energy it needs to stay up and running.  More specifically, it helps to increase your body’s production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the brain’s main fuel source.  As a supplement, it comes in a number of different forms including alpha GPC, acetylcholine, and citicoline.  

There is lots of evidence of its memory-enhancing effects in animal studies, however, findings in human trials are somewhat mixed. Most human studies with positive findings have involved elderly subjects; trials involving healthy, younger adults were less likely to demonstrate a positive effect on memory — though most research up to this point has involved the elderly and those with cognitive impairments, not healthy young and middle-aged adults.  

For example, a cross-over study published in the Archives of Neurology recruited thirty-two 50 – 85-year-old adults who had been found to have relatively ineffective memories in a previous, related study.(8) The researchers gave half of the study participants a placebo and the other have a daily dose of choline.  

After 60 days, they found that those who were given a daily choline supplement demonstrated significant improvements in immediate and delayed logical memory, compared to the placebo group who saw no such improvements.  

It’s important to point out though, that in the previous study the researchers found that choline supplementation did not have any significant effects on individuals without memory impairments — only those who were recruited for the cross-over study experienced positive effects in the first study.

Another 2016 double-blind, placebo-controlled study investigating the effects of choline supplementation on memory performance ultimately found no acute effect at all of choline supplementation on visuospatial working memory, declarative memory, or verbal working memory in healthy, young adults (ages 18 – 35).(9)

However, these findings may be partially due to the study design.  As opposed to many studies that administered a daily dose of choline over the course of a couple of months, participants in the above study only received a single dose of choline an hour prior to participating in the experiment.  

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Creatine

Creatine is a natural compound derived from the amino acids glycine and arginine.  Your body uses it to synthesize ATP, which as we discussed before, is an important energy-providing brain chemical.  

Because of the important role ATP plays in brain function, it’s hypothesized that creatine supplementation may help to improve several aspects of cognition, including your working memory.  

However, findings in human trials up until this point are mixed.  Some studies have found positive effects on memory in elderly folks, while other studies involving younger individuals have been less conclusive.  

For example, a 2007 study published in Neuropsychology, Development, and Cognition broke up elderly participants into 2 groups.(10) One group was given a placebo for the first week and then a creatine supplement 4 times a day for the second week. The second group was given only a placebo each day for both weeks. 

After the first week, both groups were given a series of cognitive assessment tests to establish a baseline and then researchers administered the same tests again following week 2 to compare results. 

 At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found that compared to the placebo group who saw no significant changes in their performance, subjects who received a daily dose of creatine in the second week demonstrated significant improvements on tasks involving spatial recall and long-term memory.  

Some studies involving younger individuals, however, have failed to demonstrate the same kind of significant findings.  For instance, a 2008 double-blind study administered either creatine or a placebo to healthy, young adult subjects.(11)

At the conclusion of the study, the researchers ultimately found that those who were given a daily dose of creatine performed no better on a series of standardized memory assessment tests following 6 weeks of supplementation.    

DHEA

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a steroid produced naturally in the brain and adrenal glands.  It’s a legal substance here in the U.S. and can be found in a number of different dietary supplements, although it is prohibited in the sports world, with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) including on its list of banned substances.  

DHEA plays an important role in several aspects of brain function, however, concentrations begin to decrease as you age.  This decline has been hypothesized to lead to things like memory impairment, along with other cognitive issues in elderly adults.  

On top of potentially helping to combat the effects of aging on your mental function, some research even suggests that DHEA supplementation may help to improve memory in younger adults without cognitive impairments as well.

For example, a 2006 study examining the effects of DHEA supplementation in healthy, young men found that compared to baseline, DHEA supplementation help to improve study participants’ performances on a standardized episodic memory test — subjects recollection accuracy was significantly higher with DHEA.(12)

While there is a limited amount of evidence for its efficacy, most human trials have failed to demonstrate any significant effects of DHEA supplementation on memory.  For example, one study published in The Journals of Gerontology found that elderly test subjects who were given a DHEA supplement ultimately performed no better on a series of standardized memory tests compared to baseline.(13) The researchers ultimately concluded that there was no significant association between DHEA supplementation and improved memory performance.  

Because the findings are somewhat inconsistent, it’s difficult to say for sure if DHEA is an effective memory-enhancing substance; more well-designed human trials need to be conducted before more definitive conclusions can be drawn.  

Ginkgo Biloba

Gingko Biloba (GB) is a natural herbal extract that helps to increase the flow of oxygen and glucose to the brain’s neurons, which, in turn, is believed to enhance severe aspects of cognition, including your memory. 

Its therapeutic properties have been documented for hundreds of years in traditional Chinese medicine and it’s also been extensively studied in western societies, with numerous studies demonstrating significant effects on memory, along with several other aspects of cognition.(14)(15)

For example, a 2011 study published in Phytomedicine examined the effects of ginkgo biloba on memory performance in healthy, middle-aged adults.(16) The researchers gave study participants either a daily dose of GB or a placebo for 6 weeks.  All test subjects were given a standardized memory assessment test at baseline and at the conclusion of the study.  

The researchers ultimately found that those who were given a daily dose of ginkgo biloba, on average, demonstrated significant improvements in memory recall at the end of the 6-week trial, where as the placebo group saw no such changes.  

While most human trials have demonstrated significant findings, a few studies have failed to find positive effects on memory, although this may be due to study design rather than the substance itself. (17)(18)

For instance, in one 2001 study that failed to find any effects, participants were only given a GB supplement for 5 days, which is a significantly smaller supplementation widow when compared to most studies that found positive effects.  

Ginseng

Ginseng is a natural extract that most often comes from the roots of either the Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) or American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) plants.  Its been in use as a therapeutic agent for thousands of years and it’s also been well-researched in modern times.  

Research suggests that ginseng works as an adaptogen, helping to block the build-up of excitatory chemicals that can impinge on your brain’s ability to function optimally.  Some research suggests that these prohibitive effects may help to improve several aspects of cognition, including things like your working memory and memory recall, however, findings up until this point are mixed.

A handful of studies involving ginseng supplementation in healthy adult subjects have demonstrated positive effects on memory.  For example, one study published in Nutritional Neuroscience ultimately found that when given a dose of ginseng before performing a series of cognitive assessment tests, participants demonstrated significant improvements in memory performance (improved memory quality and secondary memory) in comparison to when they were given only a placebo.(19)

With that being said, most human trials involving ginseng and healthy adults have failed to demonstrate significant effects on memory performance.  For instance, a 2010 review evaluated the results from 5 different studies and came to the conclusion that there was no “convincing evidence” that ginseng had a significant effect on any aspect of cognition, including memory.(20)

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Huperzine-a

Huperzine-a is a natural alkaloid extracted from the Huperzia Serrata plant.  It’s believed to work by blocking the build-up of glutamate in your brain, which can lead to neurotoxicity if gone unregulated.  

Several studies on Huperzine-a have demonstrated positive effects on things like working memory and memory recall in humans, however, these trials have typically involved individuals with serious cognitive conditions like Alzheimer’s.(21)(22)

While the findings seem promising when it comes to those with certain impairments, few studies on Huperzine-a have involved healthy individuals with normal brain function, which makes it more difficult to say whether or not the same memory-enhancing effects can be observed in those without cognitive disorders.  

One such study that did look at healthy participants involved adolescent students.(23)  At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found that compared to a placebo group, those who were given a huperzine-a supplement demonstrated significant improvements in their memory and learning performances.

L-Carnitine

L-carnitine is a metabolite of the amino acids lysine and methionine.  It plays an important role in energy metabolism, helping to transport long-chain fatty acids to be oxidized for energy in the mitochondria of your brain cells.  

While there have been a number of different human trials investigating the effects of L-carnitine supplementation on memory performance, most have involved individuals with cognitive impairments, few in any studies have involved healthy, young and middle-aged adults.  

Having said that, most studies have demonstrated positive findings.  For instance, a 2010 study published in Metabolic Brain Disease evaluated the effects of L-carnitine supplementation on memory and brain function in subjects with liver-related brain damage.(24) At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found that compared to a placebo, l-carnitine significantly improved test subjects’ performances on everyday and logical memory assessment tests.  

Other research has also shown positive effects on elderly folks with cognitive impairments, however, more research needs to be conducted on healthy, younger adults before more definitive conclusions can be drawn about its efficacy.(25)

L-Tyrosine

L-tyrosine is an amino acid involved in your body’s synthesis of neurotransmitters and hormones like dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.  Known as catecholamines, these substances aid in maintaining homeostasis in your brain, helping to regulate the functions of several neurological processes.    

As a precursor to important regulatory brain chemicals like dopamine, l-tyrosine supplementation has been well-researched, with a number of human trials demonstrating positive effects on memory performance, particularly in high-stress scenarios.  

For example, a 2013 study involving health, young adults explored the effects of L-tyrosine supplementation on memory performance during stress exposure.(26) On separate days, participants were given both an L-tyrosine supplement and a placebo and asked to partake in a series of cognitively demanding tasks designed to test their memory.  

At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found that compared to when they took only a placebo, participants saw significant improvements in their working memory performances when they were given a daily dose of L-tyrosine.  

It’s important to point out though, that the research is less clear as to whether L-carnitine has the same positive effects on memory in every-day scenarios, as opposed to high-stress situations like most studies have involved.  

Nicotine 

Nicotine is the psychoactive substance naturally found in tobacco. Surprisingly to some, it’s also been used as a memory-enhancing supplement, with a number of animal studies demonstrating that it can improve several aspects of memory performance in rats.  

Several human trials have also demonstrated that nicotine can improve memory in humans as well — particularly in non-regular users.(27)(28) For example, a 2009 study published in Psychopharmacology recruited a group of participants to complete a series of tasks designed to evaluate their memory recognition.(29)

Half of the subjects were regular nicotine users, while the others were not. In two separate sessions, participants were given a nicotine patch and a placebo and then presented with a series of words they were asked to memorize.  

At the conclusion of the study, the researchers ultimately found that compared to regular smokers, who saw no improvement in their memory performances with a nicotine patch, non-users saw a significant increase in memory recognition accuracy, being able to more accurately recognize previously seen words when given nicotine.  

Photo by Tachina Lee

Noopept 

Noopept is a synthetic substance technically known as N-phenylacetyl-L-prolylglycine ethyl ester which has similar effects to piracetam.  Also like piracetam, it’s mechanisms of action aren’t yet fully understood.  

Several animal studies have demonstrated that noopept had positive effects on memory in both healthy mice and rats with cognitive issues.  

Of the limited amount of research that has been conducted on human subjects, there is some evidence that Noopet may help to improve memory in individuals with certain cognitive impairments, however, more human trials need to be conducted before we can say anything for sure.(30)

Omega-3

Omega 3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids, of which there are three kinds: ALA, EPA, and DHA.   EPA and DHA play a critical role in brain function, aiding in the metabolism of several important neurotransmitters.   

As such researchers hypothesize that omega-3 supplementation may help to improve several aspects of cognition, including your memory.  And indeed, numerous studies on omega-3 supplementation have demonstrated positive effects on memory in elderly subjects and those with cognitive impairments. (31)(32)

For example, a 2010 study published in Clinical Interventions in Aging ultimately found that Omega-3 supplementation improved memory recall by over 40% compared to baseline in elderly folks with self-reported memory issues.(33)

With that being said, the research findings for healthy, unimpaired adults have been less convincing.  For instance, a 2012 meta-analysis of Omega-3 supplementation and cognitive performance concluded that there was not a sufficient amount of evidence to suggest that Omega-3 supplementation improves memory in anyone other than individuals with certain cognitive impairments.(34)

Piracetam

Piracetam is a synthetic compound derived from the neurotransmitter GABA, although it may not interact with your body in quite the same way as GABA.   While it’s mechanisms of actions are still not fully understood, piracetam is believed to modulate acetylcholine neurotransmitters in your brain, which some research suggests may help to improve memory performance.  

Several animal trials have demonstrated that piracetam helped to improve memory, particularly in rats with cognitive deficits, however, no much research has been conducted on humans.(35)(36)  With that being said, there have been a few human trials with positive findings.

For example, one study published in Current Psychopharmacology ultimately found that compared to a placebo, piracetam significantly improved study participants’ performances on a series of work memory tasks.(37)

While findings like these appear to be promising, more research needs to be conducted on human subjects before we can really say anything for sure when it comes to the efficacy of piracetam as a memory-enhancing supplement.  

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola Rosea is a herbal extract that’s been used in Chinese medicine for centuries as a brain-enhancing substance.    A number of pre-clinical trials have demonstrated a positive effect on memory in rats. For instance, a 2018 review found that out of thirty-six animal studies, 28 demonstrated significant improvements in memory function.(38)

While the evidence from rat models is compelling, the same type of studies have yet to be conducted on human subjects.  So while the findings up until this point may seem promising, more well-designed human trials involving rhodiola rosea supplementation and memory need to take place before we can fully evaluate its efficacy in humans.  

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Should You Take A Memory Supplement?

 Although the strength of evidence varies from substance to substance, there are a number of memory supplement ingredients that have been shown to enhance memory performance in healthy adults.  Even more substances have been shown to improve memory in those with cognitive impairments.       

No serious health risks have been associated with the substances on this list, however, some ingredients may have minor, short-term side effects — also some substances like piracetam and noopept have yet to be fully investigated by researchers.  

While many substances can have synergistic effects when taken together — that’s why most memory supplements contain multiple ingredients — some can also have unintended interactions, so it’s best to leave the mixing and matching to the experts.  

You’ll also need to consult with your doctor before taking any kind of memory supplement if you’re on other medications as it can also potentially lead to a number of different adverse health effects.  

When it comes to choosing a memory supplement that actually works, you have to do your research.  For the best results, make sure that you choose a product with proven ingredients that are appropriately dosed.  Avoid products with dubious health claims, or those that include substance without any proven efficacy. And always go with a product that’s third-party tested and consumer reviewed.