Will Vinpocetine Make You Smarter?
People have always wanted to find shortcuts to boost intelligence, improve memory, and sharpen focus. But do they work?
The onset of old age comes packaged with dwindling mental acuity and reduced physical vigor. We expect it, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. For ages, humanity has searched for ways to preserve and sharpen focus, improve memory, and enhance intelligence. Methods to boost cognition range from spiritual disciplines to physical practices to dietary supplements. Most focus on improving memory and recall, not necessarily on the actual enhancement of intelligence.
Before one ingests something that might possibly have adverse effects, physicians recommend taking care of the physical body first. Tactics include preventing and controlling high blood pressure, eating a healthful diet, engaging in physical activity, engaging in intellectual pursuits, staying socially connected through actual human interaction (social media doesn’t suffice), and managing stress. Smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating a poor diet combined with social isolation and lack of exercise can and do contribute to cognitive impairment as well as generally poor health.
However, even if one could pose as the poster child for healthy living and good health, age still takes its toll. We become a little forgetful, perhaps absentminded. Mental acuity may decline further, descending into the fog of Alzheimer’s-induced dementia or the difficulties of mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Jigsaw puzzles, crossword games, sudoku, and similar games may slow down the rate of mental decline, but nothing will stop it.
Or will it? Nootropics like vinpocetine offer hope that, if mental decline can’t be halted, then perhaps it may be delayed or slowed down.
What is vinpocetine and where does it come from?
Vinpocetine is a synthetic chemical similar to vincamine, an alkoloid extracted from periwinkle (Vinca minor). An herb, periwinkle (also known as myrtle or creeping myrtle in the USA) has been used for centuries as a natural remedy to treat a multitude of ailments ranging from diarrhea to toothaches. Both the flowers and the leaves have been used in European medicine medieval times to relieve headaches and vertigo and to improve memory. Periwinkle is traditionally administered as a tea: 10 leaves and 10 flowers boiled in water.
Because growing conditions, harvesting methods, and processing dramatically affect the strength and efficacy of any herb, the potency of herb-based ingestibles varies greatly and unintended overdose may inflict nasty side effects such as constipation, low blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, and nerve, kidney, and liver damage. According to Drugs.com, periwinkle is an abortifacient, so pregnant and lactating women are strongly advised against using it.
The variance in potency and the difficulty of controlling potency in herbs mandates the manufacture of a chemical that can be controlled. This first occurred in the late 1960s, with vinpocetine being sold under the commercial names of Cavinton and Intelectol since the late 1970s.
Are there alternatives that work to improve brain performance?
Natural supplements and drugs shown to have a beneficial effect on brain function in healthy people do exist. Many may be easily obtained in any supermarket or health food store and include fish oils (omega-3 fatty acids and docosahexaenoic acid), resveratrol, creatine, ginkgo biloba, and caffeine. With the exception of caffeine, most of these supplements are reported to preserve brain function or at least prevent brain function from declining further. They don’t make you smarter or enhance brain function.
Caffeine, a stimulant naturally occurring in our morning cuppa joe, does make one feel more alert and energized. It has been shown to improve reaction time, memory, and general brain function; however, it’s also addictive. Most people ingest more than enough caffeine in daily eating and drinking and do not need to take a supplement; however, there’s no reliable way for them to know how much caffeine they’re getting. Too much caffeine leads to nausea, jitters, anxiety, and insomnia.
Is there a difference between improved memory and improved intelligence?
Memory refers to what you remember: it’s the record of what you have seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, experienced, and learned. Intelligence refers to the ability to reason and solve problems, which the brain then remembers. Scientists postulate that fluid intelligence and memory use the same neural pathways within the brain, so if memory can be preserved and enhanced, then so can intelligence.
Memory games, crossword puzzles, and the like have been shown to preserve mental cognition or at least slow its decline, which may give the appearance of boosting one’s intelligence; but, no evidence indicates that any type of brain training actually increases fluid intelligence in adults. While it may appear that those who engage in memory exercises are more intelligent, they are likely using their increasing recall of past problems and solutions to resolve new problems. A 2016 paper titled “Working Memory Training Does Not Improve Performance on Measures of Intelligence or Other Measures of ‘Far Transfer’: Evidence From a Meta-Analytic Review” by Monica Melby-Lervåg, Thomas S. Redick, and Charles Hulme and published in Perspectives on Psychological Science concludes that working memory training does not enhance intelligence. In short, memory training does not increase intelligence test scores.
So, you can improve your memory, but can you improve your intelligence?
The $25,000 question has no easy answer. The Cleveland Clinic states that of the 25,000 bioactive ingredients in food, research has not shown whether it’s the combination of all the ingredients, only some of the ingredients, or a few select ingredients that truly protects and enhances cognitive function. Harvard Health Publishing agrees: taking a supplement or six can’t fix stupid.
Improving intelligence happens mainly from what you do rather than what you swallow. In a guest blog titled “You Can Increase Your Intelligence: 5 Ways to Maximize Your Cognitive Potential,” Scientific American offers five ways to make yourself smarter: seek novelty, challenge yourself, think creatively, do things the hard way, and network. The last two aren’t intuitive and require some explanation.
Doing things the hard way: When it comes to enhancing intelligence, efficiency isn’t your friend. Efficiency seeks to accomplish a task in the least amount of time with the least amount of mental and physical effort. While efficiency is great for the bottom line, it does your brain no favors. For instance, smartphones with their ability to record phone numbers with contact names have led to a simple but profound inability of people to remember phone numbers. The same goes for GPS. While it’s helpful for finding one’s way around an unfamiliar location, one’s navigational skills deteriorate. Like any muscle, lack of exertion weakens it. Efficiency reduces the work your brain must do to resolve a problem, thereby weakening it.
Networking refers to interaction with other people. It exposes you to different situations and environments and forces you to think, to open yourself to new opportunities for cognitive growth, and to expose yourself to new ideas and concepts as you reap the social and emotional benefits of human interaction. The struggle to learn, adapt, and respond engages the brain and strengthens it.
Will vinpocetine improve my cognitive function?
In 2016, the US Food & Drug Administration tentatively announced that vinpocetine does not meet the definition of a dietary ingredient, despite dietary supplements containing vinpocetine being marketed for the improvement of brain function, weight loss, energy enhancement, and improved visual acuity, memory, and focus. Marketing also claims benefits related to relief of menopausal symptoms, chronic fatigue, seizure disorders, and auditory and ocular disorders. A lack of scientific studies of vinpocetine as a neuroprotective agent does not support claims regarding the supplement’s efficacy to prevent or reduce stroke or dementia or to improve cognitive acuity.
According to Drugs.com, clinical data from a handful of studies mostly conducted on animals shows vinpocetine effective in preventing neurosensory hypoacusis, reducing or eliminating epileptic seizures, and retarding reproduction of breast cancer cells, and, yes, increasing brain perfusion for improved learning. A 1987 paper titled “Vincpocetine Enhances Retrieval of a Step-through Passive Avoidance Response in Rats” by Victor J. DeNoble and published in Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior verifies long-held, anecdotal evidence that vinpocetine does strengthen memory and recall: “These data support the view that vinpocetine has cognition-activating abilities as defined in an animal model of memory retrieval.”
So, those medieval herbalists weren’t necessarily wrong.
Because vinpocetine is not readily soluble nor easily absorbed into the bloodstream, one must ingest a larger amount that might actually be needed to achieve the correct concentration in the body for it to take the desired effect. Literature states that what the body does absorb quickly peaks and enters the brain where it can do its intended job.
Its effect on the body shows that ingested vinpocetine enhances blood flow to the brain without raising one’s blood pressure. This aligns with the traditional use of periwinkle as a headache reliever. According to the “Summary of Vinpocetine” published by Examine, vinpocetine is both cardioprotective and cognitive-enhancing, but only at large doses. Large doses, as noted above, lead to a host of unpleasant and potentially serious side effects.
The upshot is that vinpocetine does not make you smarter. It does, however, increase blood flow to the brain and confer protection against cognitive decline which isn’t such a bad trade-off for those facing their golden years.