Memory-enhancement products.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Jan. 5 2005 8:34 AM

You Must Remember This

Are there memory-enhancement products that work?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Tell someone you've been spending your days checking out memory-enhancement products and chances are they'll say something like "That's interesting"—long pause—"What did you say you were working on?" The prospect of memory loss makes people so uncomfortable they invariably make stupid jokes about it, then chuckle as if those jokes were actually funny. "Sorry, ha ha, I'm having a senior moment." "Oops, it must be early onset Alzheimer's!"

Statistically speaking, unless you live till about 90, the chances of getting Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia is fairly low. Still, the brain gets less agile as we age, and for many people mental tasks that once seemed mindless, like remembering names and recalling words, become noticeably more difficult. Even minor memory lapses can generate big anxieties. So, the possibility that some thing—a vitamin, a supplement, a set of cognitive exercises, a biofeedback machine—will make us sharper, more focused, smarter, less forgetful, is desperately appealing.

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At least it is for me as I progress farther into my 40s, misplacing my keys and swearing I've never had conversations that others claim to recall with perfect clarity. And what does the word "synecdoche" mean anyway? I used to know.

There are currently numerous products that promise stunning gains in IQ and remarkable increases in memory and the number will only increase as the population ages. But do any of them actually work? While my first inclination was to focus on over-the-counter pharmaceuticals like periwinkle extract and colloidal gold because they required no investment of time or mental effort, a quick survey of a defunct FDA Web site (resurrected on The Memory Hole) detailing the harm that had befallen people who blindly swallowed supplements assuming that because they were "natural" they were safe, as well as a recent article in the Lancet demonstrating that no supplement has yet proved to enhance memory, convinced me to stay away from things I'd have to put in my mouth.

Instead, I decided to stick with products that might "grow my brain" by laying down additional neural pathways (which typically happens when you learn something new), and those that claimed they would change my brain-wave patterns, making my brain more receptive to remembering. These included compact disc recordings of certain kinds of engineered sounds intended to unite left- and right-brain hemispheres; optical stimulation machines that shoot a Morse code of white light at the eyelids; software-based mental exercise gyms; and books outlining memory programs. I started with 10 products—chosen because I had read about them in best-selling books about memory loss or on those books' Web sites, or that I had found through internet searches—jettisoned three(two because they were far too complicated and the third because it was just too dopey), and stuck with eight, which I used over a period of two months.

One problem, though, was finding a reasonable research methodology. As a lone individual, I could not conduct random, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. And memory, in any case, is elusive—hard to get a bead on, let alone to measure. That you remember to pick up the dry cleaning on Monday but fail to come home with a quart of milk on Tuesday says little about the condition of your memory. (The neurologist's rule of thumb: Don't worry if you misplace the car keys, worry if you don't know what the keys are for.)

Still, I needed a way, however crude, of seeing if my memory was getting sharper, so I signed up for an Internet-based memory testing site called MemCheck ($69.95 per year; $9.95 per month). Intended primarily for people with serious concerns about memory loss, such as Alzheimer's or something called Mild Cognitive Impairment, MemCheck offers subscribers two mental screening options. The first is an extensive battery of tests that examines psychomotor processing speed, executive function (defined on the site as planning, organization, and mental quickness), and short-term memory; it takes about half an hour to complete. The second, MemWatch, is an abridged version of the first. It tests short-term memory and processing speed in less than 10 minutes.

After testing myself with MemCheck and finding out that my executive functioning was excellent and my short-term memory was just OK, I took the MemWatch test, which gave me a baseline score against which I could compare my results in subsequent testings, after using the various memory-enhancing programs and products. I assumed, much like a weakling entering a gym to lift weights in order to build muscle, that if any of these products worked as advertised, I'd be adding axons and dendrites to my brain that would create neural pathways that would necessarily raise my score. And the fact is, over two months, my score did go up, a full 40 points. Whether this gain is actually meaningful in a practical sort of way is not precisely relevant. What is relevant is that in mid-September I was an 85 and by mid-November I was, consistently, a 126. Something happened.

It's possible that I simply got better at taking the test. It's also possible that I got better at taking the test because new neural pathways were laid down each time I took it. On the other hand, maybe my improvement was a direct result of the neural pathways that had been stimulated by one or more of the products I was using. Overall, I felt sharper, more articulate, less forgetful, quicker. I could go to the supermarket without a written list and bring home the 17 items I'd set out to buy (due to a new strategy I'd learned). For the first time in years I beat my husband at pingpong (quicker reflexes). I returned my library books on time (because I could actually recall when they were due). True, I forgot to feed the dog one morning, but these things happen.

Though I would like to point to a single product to account for these changes, I can't. They complemented each other. Some taught strategy, some toned reflexes, some claimed to be integrating my brain in subliminal ways. Some were a bust. Some were fun. A couple really seemed to help.

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