The human brain remains a mystery today, even after years of research into the biological processes underlying its specific actions. In addition to controlling and coordinating vital life processes, the brain regulates higher level operations such as memory and cognition, functions that provide us with the capacity to think, reason and act. These mental abilities, however, have been observed to diminish significantly with advancing age as early as in the fifth decade of life, and factors such as emotional stress could precipitate these effects even earlier in life. Gradual deterioration may progress to a point where the person, often in good physical health, is unable to perform even simple daily tasks.
In recent years, researchers have identified a number of natural compounds that could potentially help to retard mental deterioration. Most of this research is based on plants used in the ancient systems of medicine to promote brain health. One plant that has been used in mental conditions and illnesses is Bacopa monniera Wettst. (syn Herpestis monniera ). It is commonly known as Indian water hyssop or Brahmi and belongs to the family Scrophulariaceae.
Brahmi has been used by ayurvedic medical practitioners in India for almost 3000 years. The earliest chronicled mention is in the ayurvedic treatise, the Charaka Samhita (100 A.D.), in which Brahmi is recommended in formulations for the management of a range of mental conditions including anxiety, poor cognition and lack of concentration. According to the Charaka, Brahmi acts as an effective brain tonic that boosts one’s capabilities to think and reason. The Sushruta Samhita (200 A.D.) attributes the plant with efficacy in maintaining an acuity of intellect and memory. The Bhavprakasha Bighantu, commonly known as the Indian materia medica (1500 A.D.), cites the plant as a brain tonic that is effective in maintaining vigor and intellect. In India, Brahmi is currently recognized as being effective in the treatment of mental illness and epilepsy.
The name Brahmi is derived from the word “Brahma“, the mythical “creator” in the Hindu pantheon. According to Hindu concepts, the brain is the center for creative activity. Thus, any compound that improves this faculty of the brain is called Brahmi. Other Sanskrit names for this plant are “bahuphene”, atiphena” and “phenavati”. The word “phena” means “foaming property”. When mixed with water, bacopa plant parts produce a stable froth that is attributed to the saponins present in the plant. Pharmacologically, it is understood that Brahmi has an unusual combination of constituents that are beneficial in mental inefficiency and illnesses and useful in the management of convulsive disorders like epilepsy. Bacoside’s, active principles responsible for improving memory-related functions, are attributed with the capability to enhance the efficiency of transmission of nerve impulses, thereby strengthening memory and cognition.