Bacopa monnieri (commonly called bacopa) is a perennial herb that has been used for centuries in Indian Ayurveda traditional medicine. Practitioners of Ayurveda claim varying benefits from bacopa, including improved cognitive function. Studies show that bacopa may slightly improve scores on cognitive tests in some people. Scientists are exploring other claims that it can protect against a variety of diseases, but the evidence so far is minimal.
Many small clinical trials have looked at effects on cognition but no human studies— either clinical trials or observational studies—have looked at protection from cognitive decline. Our search identified:
• 2 meta-analyses on 6-9 exploratory clinical trials looking at effects on cognition
• 0 clinical trials or observational studies in humans looking at effects on cognitive decline or dementia risk
• Multiple preclinical studies in animals or test tubes have established a biological rationale for protective properties but these effects have not been confirmed in humans
Small clinical trials have confirmed that bacopa can improve some cognitive test scores . However, the effects are modest and may not yield an improvement noticed by the individual in daily life. A clinical trial in Australia is currently testing whether 300 mg per day of bacopa for 12 months might benefit cognition, mood, cardiovascular health, safety, and biochemical measures of inflammation, oxidative stress, and telomere length in healthy elderly people . As of June 2015, scientists were still recruiting subjects and results were anticipated at the end of 2016.
Bacopa has a long history of use in Ayurveda and preclinical research studies have identified biological mechanisms by which it might protect the brain from aging and perhaps Alzheimer’s disease [3-9]. However, no scientific studies in humans have confirmed that these biological benefits occur or that they can protect from cognitive decline or dementia.
Bacopa has not been evaluated on its own as a treatment for dementia in randomized controlled trials. There are hints of potential benefit in other types of research that should be explored with more research.
Bacopa is a widely used supplement generally considered to be safe, though its risks have not been well-studied and likely vary by individual. In small clinical trials, bacopa was reported to be safe for healthy adults when used for three months . According to the US Pharmacopeia material safety data sheet, heart problems and thyroid problems might be exacerbated by bacopa and chronic use of bacopa may lead to hypersensitization. People who take anti-depressants, thyroid drugs or drugs that affect cholinergic pathways (e.g., acetylcholinesterase inhibitors or cholinergic drugs) should be cautious. Bacopa may also reduce heart and lung function and heart rate .
Some sources of bacopa may be unsafe. Depending on where the plant is grown, its extracts could contain mercury, lead, and other heavy metals . Consider choosing supplements whose content has been verified by a third party like the United States Pharmacopeia.
NOTE: This is not a comprehensive safety evaluation or complete list of potentially harmful drug interactions. It is important to discuss safety issues with your physician before taking any new supplement or medication.
In clinical trials on cognitive function, bacopa extract is often administered at 300 mg/day, though doses have ranged from 250 to 600 mg/day . Some bacopa supplements are standardized to contain a certain percentage of bacosides, the components of bacopa that are believed to be biologically active . Without this standardization, the doses of bacosides might change unexpectedly in differently lots of supplements sold by the same company. However, no specific dose or formulation of bacosides has been shown to be particularly effective in clinical trials .
Some scientific articles on bacopa are available for free online. To find, visit the PubMed website, search for bacopa, and filter by "Free full text."
Researchers at Swinburne University have studied a specific extract of bacopa.
Photo: Forest and Kim Starr