These Supplements Enhance Cognition More Than a Pharmaceutical Drug

5 June 2019
Christopher C. Smith

Supplements for Cognitive Enhancement

Researchers at Swinburne University in Australia reviewed two dozen clinical studies of three cognitive enhancers — the herbal supplements Ginseng and Bacopa and a pharmaceutical drug called Modafinil — to calculate and compare their effect sizes. The comparison showed the two herbal supplements to be as or more effective than the pharmaceutical drug.[1]

Panax ginseng and Bacopa monniera supplements are used respectively for short-term and long-term cognitive enhancement. The drug modafinil is prescribed to treat sleep disorders, but it sees widespread off-label use as a short-term cognitive enhancer. To compare effect sizes, the Swinburne University researchers aggregated and normalized the results of nine clinical studies of Ginseng, seven clinical studies of Bacopa, and eight clinical studies of modafinil.

First let’s look at modafinil, the pharmaceutical drug. When taken by healthy adults with normal sleep patterns, modafinil shows a small positive effect on reaction times and a small-to-large effect on accuracy of visual-spatial memory. These effects are most pronounced 2–4 hours after ingestion and fully wear off after 12–15 hours. Modafinil has no effect on several other dimensions of cognitive performance, including mathematical processing, associative learning, and verbal fluency. Studies detected no adverse effects on cognitive function.

Ginseng contains over 30 psychoactive compounds and has broad effects on both brain activity and blood glucose. Studies of acute (short-term) ginseng supplementation found large improvements of reaction time and large reductions of mental fatigue. Ginseng also improved working memory and mental arithmetic. Ginseng had counterproductive effects with prolonged use, however. After dosing for 8 days, subjects continued to outperform on memory tasks in terms of accuracy, but they underperformed in terms of reaction time.

Bacopa is an herbal antioxidant, neuroprotector, and mood and memory enhancer. Studies found that its positive effects became evident only after prolonged dosing for 12 weeks or more. Bacopa caused small-to-medium-sized improvements of attention, learning, and information processing, and large improvements of working memory. It had no effect on reaction time.

Modafinil, Ginseng, and Bacopa each had overwhelmingly positive effects on cognition in the clinical studies. Interestingly, Ginseng and Bacopa’s largest effect sizes were larger than modafinil’s largest effect size, which suggests that dose-for-dose, these herbal supplements may be even more powerful cognitive enhancers than the pharmaceutical drug.

Each of the three cognitive enhancers appears to work on slightly different aspects of cognition. Modafinil appears to help with visual-spatial memory and executive functioning, Ginseng with heavily loaded working memory tasks, and Bacopa with learning and memory.

Ginseng, however, may be best in a single dose (200–400 mg) for short-term use. Only a few studies have looked at prolonged dosing with Ginseng, and one of them found negative effects on memory reaction times after 8 days of dosing.

For extended use, you’re better off taking Bacopa. In addition to improving attention, learning, and memory, Bacopa also appears to protect the brain against harmful amyloid plaques. You’ll need to take daily 300 mg doses of Bacopa for 12 weeks before you can expect to see results.

I recommend staying away from off-label use of pharmaceutical drugs. Fortunately, there are powerful over-the-counter alternatives. As always, be aware that some may experience adverse effects from use of nutraceuticals. Consult with your doctor before and during nutraceutical use.


  1. Neale C, Camfield D, Reay J, Stough C, Scholey A. Cognitive effects of two nutraceuticals Ginseng and Bacopa benchmarked against modafinil: a review and comparison of effect sizes. Br. J. Clin. Pharmacol. 2013 Mar;75(3):728–737. doi:10.1111/bcp.12002.

Editor Note

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