Students who are struggling with exams or people eager to clinch an important business deal can boost their brain power and improve their chances of success by taking a unique combination of two ancient herbal remedies.
New research, presented at the British Psychological Society's annual conference yesterday, shows that a single dose of the drug combination can improve concentration and sharpen the memory within an hour.
The study is the first to show that taking ginseng, which is extracted from the ginseng root, combined with ginkgo biloba, an extraction from the leaves of the world's oldest tree, can make a significant difference to brain function.
"The holy grail of cognitive enhancement is a drug that will improve both memory and concentration," said Dr Andrew Scholey, of the University of Northumbria, who conducted the work with David Kennedy, a research scientist.
Dr Scholey said: "Normally when you speed people up you lose a bit of accuracy, or if they are more accurate they take longer to respond; it's a trade off. But these two herbs added together work in a remarkable way, improving both speed and accuracy. It may be a bit Brave New World, with people being able to tailor their cognition to individual tasks, but it is a remarkable finding."
Both herbal extracts have been used for hundreds of years in Chinese medicine but practitioners had recommended that long-term use of either is the only way to boost energy and performance. These latest findings show that is not true, as a single dose taken in the morning can improve performance all day.
The researchers carried out three separate studies, using the herbal extracts separately and then in combination. In each study they tested people's memory, attention and concentration four times during the day. The findings showed that a single dose of ginkgo biloba improved attentiveness. After one dose the participants displayed much faster reaction times in concentration tests. Dr Scholey said: "A single dose of ginkgo biloba at 9am improved people's concentration and speed and the effects were sustained all day. Normally when people have to concentrate over an extended period their reaction time begins to slow. Ginkgo seemed to stop that slowing and one dose actually speeded them up."
Ginseng was shown to improve people's memory. Although 400mg of the herbal medicine was enough to make a difference, most health food shops and chemists in Britain sell Ginseng in 600mg tablets.
Mr Kennedy said: "It is very difficult to overdose on the drug but people who take 15g a day can suffer from difficulties sleeping. The findings show that there is an optimal dose of both herbal remedies." The only other known side-effect is a mild headache.
The researchers tested a combination drug which was 60 per cent ginseng and 40 per cent ginkgo biloba. Dr Scholey said: "What seems to be happening is it is improving their mental energy. We don't know how far to generalise these findings but there is no reason to suppose it won't improve academic performance."
The study was funded by Pharmaton, a Swiss company that produces ginseng and ginkgo extractions and a combination of the two. The combination remedy is not available in Britain.
* The stimulant effect of coffee can be partly in the mind. Researchers showed that people unknowingly given decaffeinated coffee worked at a faster rate but made more mistakes than those who had been given caffeinated coffee.
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