Vinpocetine: Can This Flower Improve Your Memory?
Forget-me-nots symbolize remembrance in myths and legends. But in the scientific realm, another purple flower seems to best protect the brain.
And that’s no fiction.
Proponents say this common garden border can enhance memory, increase blood flow, and even protect nerve cells against damaging strokes.
Some doctors like it, too. In fact, a synthetic derivative of the plant is prescribed in Europe for these very purposes.
But you don’t need to travel overseas to get your hands on the product. It’s sold here in the United States as a dietary supplement.
So does it live up to the hype?
A Powerful Purple Plant…
Vinpocetine is a synthetic derivative of apovincamine, a compound found in periwinkle.
The periwinkle plant (Vinca minor) itself has had a place in herbal medicine for thousands of years: From Europe to the Caribbean, from China to South America, people have valued it as tonic for advanced age and fatigue, as a remedy for colds and flu, and as a treatment for eye irritation and infections.
In Europe, periwinkle was even considered a magical plant, with the ability to ward off evil spirits. Maybe that’s why the French called it the “violet of sorcerers”.
In the 1950s, Western researchers finally recognized this powerful plant and began studying its potentially beneficial contents.
A decade later, scientists extracted an alkaloid called vincamine from periwinkle leaves. They then synthesized that alkaloid into vinpocetine. By the late 1970s, Hungarian researchers had created a drug called Cavinton, aimed at improving cognitive function.
Its main ingredient?
In the years since then, vinpocetine has become a major player in the European and Japanese pharmaceutical industries. Physicians in both regions rely on vinpocetine to treat cerebral vascular problems and protect nerve cells from damage.
Here in the US, vinpocetine remains a dietary supplement, marketed to help improve blood flow and boost memory.
Keeps Things Flowing…
Vincopetine owes its popularity in the West to its purported ability to benefit brain health. But what does that mean, exactly?
Well, this supplement won’t make you smarter. But what it may do is work at a circulatory level to ensure that the brain receives adequate blood flow – and therefore oxygen and glucose, the organ’s primary source of energy.
See, in people who have chronic cerebral vascular ischemia, the brain doesn’t get enough blood, usually because of atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) or an ischemic stroke.
As a result, memory and thinking may be affected, leading to a problem known as vascular dementia.
Research suggests that for people with this particular issue, vinpocetine may be a godsend.
For example, Hungarian researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to show that glucose transport to the brain increased after vinpocetine was administered, either intravenously or in tablet form. Similar studies using other techniques show that the compound can also improve blood flow to the brain.1
In a small double-blind, randomized, controlled trial, researchers found that 14 days of intravenous vinpocetine could increase blood flow in people with chronic cerebral vascular ischemia, particularly to areas where blood was needed most.2
A larger randomized and placebo-controlled study showed that people with the condition scored better on tests of cognitive performance after supplementing with either 30 or 60 mg of vinpocetine for 16 weeks.3
And a small 2005 trial of 26 people found that supplemental vinpocetine was associated with a wider blood vessel diameter and no worsening of cognitive function after three months, compared to a placebo.4
When researchers looked specifically at people with vascular dementia, they also saw impressive results.
In one analysis of seven previous trials, researchers concluded that patients with dementia who took vinpocetine experienced improvements in cognitive function and their ability to perform daily activities.1
More recently, another analysis of the three most rigorous studies of vinpocetine found that doses of 30 to 60 mg might benefit cognitive impairment and dementia. Yet because there are currently only three gold-standard studies of this supplement, the researchers stressed the need for more large clinical trials.1
A Boon to Injured Brains…
More research is also needed on the effect of vinpocetine on ischemic stroke. However, some evidence does suggest that the compound may help prevent damage from such an injury.
Studies show that vinpocetine inhibits the enzyme phosphodiesterase (PDE1) and reduces intracellular levels of calcium – both of which are responsible for the contraction and narrowing of blood vessels. The supplement also appears to reduce the stickiness of red blood cells and platelets, which may improve blood flow, too.
That suggests that vinpocetine might help protect brain tissue when blood flow is otherwise insufficient – a problem that happens during an ischemic stroke. Because vinpocetine is also considered a sodium channel blocker, it may protect nerve cells from this type of damage by preventing the accumulation of sodium in injured brain cells.5
In this way, vinpocetine may help preserve the ability of brain cells to rebuild after injury – and that can help restore cognitive function quickly.
Don’t let the marketing claims fool you: Vinpocetine likely won’t boost your mental performance if you’re already healthy.
But if you suffer from impaired blood flow to the brain, especially resulting in dementia or other memory problems, this purple plant could be just what the doctor – or in the US, herbalist – ordered.
Keep in mind that vinpocetine isn’t for everyone. Because it can increase circulation, you should check with your physician before taking vinpocetine if you also take anticoagulant or antiplatelet medications or supplements (such as warfarin, aspirin, ibuprofen, heparin, ginkgo, garlic, etc.), as the combination could raise the risk of bleeding or bruising. For the same reason, avoid vinpocetine if you have a clotting disorder.
These risks aside, vinpocetine appears safe, although it might cause mild side effects like gastrointestinal discomfort, headaches, sleep disturbances, and nausea.
Most studies of vinpocetine have used 30 to 60 mg of the product daily in divided doses. Take it with food to increase absorption.
And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
2Bönöczk P, Panczel G, Nagy Z. Vinpocetine increases cerebral blood flow and oxygenation in stroke patients: a near infrared spectroscopy and transcranial Doppler study. Eur J Ultrasound. 2002 Jun;15(1-2):85-91.
3Hindmarch I, Fuchs HH, Erzigkeit H. Efficacy and tolerance of vinpocetine in ambulant patients suffering from mild to moderate organic psychosyndromes. Int Clin Psychopharmacol. 1991 Spring;6(1):31-43.
4 Kemény V, Molnár S, Andrejkovics M, et al. Acute and chronic effects of vinpocetine on cerebral hemodynamics and neuropsychological performance in multi-infarct patients. J Clin Pharmacol. 2005 Sep;45(9):1048-54.
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