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Memory Boosters

Bernard Madoff appears with his attorneys in U.S. District court in New York June 29, 2009 in this courtroom sketch by Jane Rosenberg. Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison.
Jane Rosenberg
As our brainpower decreases with age, one of the most noticeable casualties is the ability to remember.

Dr. Robert Butler, president of the International Longevity Center, visited The Early Show Wednesday to give an update on the search for an effective way to give memories a boost.

Butler says as the baby boomers age and the number of elderly Americans increases, the search for an effective drug to improve and preserve memory is escalating. Many drug companies stand to profit from better treatments to help battle diseases like Alzheimer's, according to Butler.

Currently, there are four drugs used to treat Alzheimer's disease: Donepezil (Aricept), Galantamine (Reminyl), Rivastigmine (Exelon) and memantine. They have been shown to provide modest improvement over a short period of time, but Butler says, they are not a really effective way to treat the disease.

They have been shown to provide modest improvement over a short period of time. They are not, however, an effective way to treat the disease. Butler says new research is focused on trying to develop some means of delaying the formation of amyloid in the brain, a substance believed to directly affect memory.

Butler says there are a few dietary supplements that contain various ingredients marketed for their ability to boost mental ability and enhance memory, most notably gingko biloba. The problem, he says, is that the science has not been proven. The marketers' claims may be correct, or they may be wrong.

The medicine branch at the National Institutes of Health may someday give the medical community a better idea of the effectiveness of the supplement, according to Butler. Now, there is very little demanded of the supplements' claims. So, Butler says, the placebo effect may be providing a sense of protection.

Drug companies and supplement producers are currently working hard to develop memory boosting "cognitive enhancers" that can prevent cognitive decline and preserve the ability to remember. Pharmaceutical companies are investigating dozens of compounds to see whether they can help people who have memory difficulties due to illnesses. Butler says these drugs may eventually help prevent deficits that healthy elderly people experience.

Millions of Americans suffer from disorders that involve memory problems, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke, head trauma, schizophrenia and mild cognitive impairment. Extreme cases like advanced Alzheimer's affects procedural memory, or the ability to perform basic tasks or motor skills like riding a bicycle or getting dressed. Most other memory disorders involve episodic memory, or the ability to recall specific information about people, dates and events. Many of the new compounds being scrutinized seek to improve the way recent memories are stored, transformed into long-term memories and brought back into consciousness when needed.

Butler says as the understanding of the physical workings of the brain increases, it opens up new avenues for research. One research effort is focused on is developing compounds that maintain brain levels of a substance called cyclic AMP, which transmits intracellular signals and has been shown in mice to play a role in memory formation and retrieval. Another avenue of research is into drugs that bind themselves to sites on nerve cells called AMPA receptors. The receptors respond to signals between cells carried by the neurotransmitter glutamate, and the drugs, called ampakines, are intended to enhance the strength of the incoming signal.

Even if a memory enhancer is successfully developed, there is no guarantee that the drugs will work for people who age normally or younger people hoping to do well academically, according to Butler.

In the absence of an effective pill to pop, there are other ways to boost your memory function.

Butler says physical exercises, fulfilling social interaction and intellectual stimulation can all help maintain memory.

Stimulation such as learning a new language is a really good way to keep the memory sharp, he says, with a constant learning and recall process and an emphasis on structure and grammar.

Also, a balanced diet with plenty of omega-3 fat and low in saturated fat can reduce therosclerosis in the brain blood vessels and keep the physical brain functioning well, according to experts. Lowering hypertension prevents the little blowouts or repeated small strokes that can be devastating to the memory.