Ginkgo Biloba: A Living Fossil With Cognitive Enhancing Properties

February 01, 2019

Ginkgo Biloba: A Living Fossil With Cognitive Enhancing Properties

The world has changed a lot in the past 270 million years. Millions of species of animals, plants, and insects have lived and disappeared.

Throughout all that time, the ginkgo tree has remained mostly the same. It’s one of the last living relics of the Permian era.

Despite being over 1000 times older, the ginkgo tree has a particular affiliation with human beings. It’s been used for thousands of years by humans as a food and medicine.

Ginkgo seeds and leaves have been well studied for their effects on human cognition over the last 60 years, with some very impressive results.

How Old Is Ginkgo?

Carbon dating of ginkgo fossils suggest it was around as long as 250 to 270 million years ago.

This would bring us back to the Permian era, a time where reptiles first evolved into mammals, and all the Earth’s continents were connected together in one large land mass known as Pangea.

This era came to an abrupt end about 47 million years after it began with what experts believe was the largest mass extinction event in Earth’s history. As many as 96% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species were thought to have died out.

Gingko was one of the few species to have somehow survived this incident, and has remained virtually unchanged throughout the Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, Paleogene, and Neogene eras.

Ginkgo biloba

This makes Ginkgo older than dinosaurs. In fact, it’s believed to be the oldest living plant species on earth.

Only horseshoe crabs, the nautilus, sponges, and jellyfish are older than the mighty ginkgo tree.

What Is Ginkgo Used For?

Ginkgo has had many different uses throughout history.

In traditional Chinese medicine, it was mostly used for treating asthma. It was discovered to be an ancient tree very early on, and was planted around shrines in China and Japan for well over the last thousand years.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the modern uses of the plant were discovered.

After a German research group discovered that the leaves of the pant could significantly enhance blood circulation in the limbs. This lead to decades of further research projects that have since found that gingko offers this same blood flow enhancing benefit to the brain.

Modern uses for the plant include cognitive supportive actions. It’s considered a nootropic, and Anti-Alzheimer's agent, circulation enhancer, and cardiotonic.

It’s been shown to boost memory [2], facilitate the process of learning and behavioural adaptation [3], and buffers the body from the harmful effects of stress [4].

Gingko is a very versatile plant medicinally, but is especially esteemed for its protective effects on the brain and nervous system.

Cognitive support

How It Works

Gingkos effects can be broken down into two groups:

  1. Blood circulation support

Our brains use as much as 25% of the energy we produce in a day. This energy supplied in the form of blood sugar and fats. In order to burn these fuels for energy, the body needs oxygen, which relies on the flow of red blood cells to carry oxygen to the cells that need it.

Without adequate blood flow, cells throughout the body are unable to thrive. When this happens in the brain, we can experience a drop in overall cognitive output. This can present with symptoms like confusion, irritability, memory impairment, and difficulty concentrating.

Over long periods of time, poor blood flow to the brain can lead to more serious conditions like memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.

Ginkgo has a particularly potent effect on blood circulation in humans. It reduces platelet aggregation in the bloodstream, which helps to prevent blockages [1].

It’s also been shown to normalise irregular heartbeats [5], and protect the artery walls from oxidative damage [8].

  1. Neuroprotective

Ginkgo has been shown to protect the brain cells from damage. It improves the metabolism of glucose by the brain cells [2], making them more efficient and less prone to damage from high blood sugar levels.

It’s also been shown to reduce a compound called beta-amyloid, which builds up in the brain as we age, leading to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease [9].

This was further backed up when gingko was shown to significantly reduce the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in mice genetically predispositioned to developing the disease [10].

One of the main benefits ginkgo has on the brain comes through its potent antioxidant profile. The brain is a very sensitive organ, making it susceptible to oxidative damage.

Oxidative compounds cause damage to the cells. When this happens to the cells in our brain, cognitive capacity can start to decline. Antioxidants offer protection from this damage by binding to free radicals in our bloodstream to neutralise and destroy them.

Although compounds in gingko are directly antioxidant, its most powerful benefit comes from an ability to activate the bodies own antioxidant protection systems. This was proven in a set of animal studies using both radiation [6] and chemical oxidative damage [7].

cells

Conclusion

Gingko is thought to be the oldest living plant species known. It predates virtually all other life forms currently alive on earth.

Only in the last century have we begun to uncover gingkos effects on the human brain, and it’s very impressive.

Ginkgo has been shown to boost memory and concentration, improves blood flow to the brain, improves blood sugar metabolism, and protects the delicate nerve cells from oxidative damage.

Gingko is by far one of the most important plant species for the aging human population.

References

  1. Chung, K. F., McCusker, M., Page, C. P., Dent, G., Guinot, P. H., & Barnes, P. J. (1987). Effect of a ginkgolide mixture (BN 52063) in antagonising skin and platelet responses to platelet activating factor in man. The Lancet, 329(8527), 248-251.
  2. Maclennan, K. M., Darlington, C. L., & Smith, P. F. (2002). The CNS effects of Ginkgo biloba extracts and ginkgolide B. Progress in neurobiology, 67(3), 235-257.
  3. Rapin, J. R., Lamproglou, I., Drieu, K., & Defeudis, F. V. (1994). Demonstration of the “anti-stress” activity of an extract of Ginkgo biloba (EGb 761) using a discrimination learning task. General Pharmacology: The Vascular System, 25(5), 1009-1016.
  4. Ward, C. P., Redd, K., Williams, B. M., Caler, J. R., Luo, Y., & McCoy, J. G. (2002). Ginkgo biloba extract: cognitive enhancer or antistress buffer. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 72(4), 913-922.
  5. Braquet, P., Paubert-Braquet, M., Koltai, M., Bourgain, R., Bussolino, F., & Hosford, D. (1989). Is there a case for PAF antagonists in the treatment of ischemie states?. Trends in pharmacological sciences, 10(1), 23-30.
  6. Ilhan, A., Gurel, A., Armutcu, F., Kamisli, S., Iraz, M., Akyol, O., & Ozen, S. (2004). Ginkgo biloba prevents mobile phone-induced oxidative stress in rat brain. Clinica chimica acta, 340(1-2), 153-162.
  7. Artmann, G. M., & Schikarski, C. (1993). Ginkgo-Biloba Extract (Egb-761) Protects Red-Blood-Cells from Oxidative Damage. Clinical hemorheology, 13(4), 529-539.
  8. Zhuang, H., Pin, S., Christen, Y., & Doré, S. (2002). Induction of heme oxygenase 1 by Ginkgo biloba in neuronal cultures and potential implications in ischemia. Cellular and molecular biology (Noisy-le-Grand, France), 48(6), 647-653.
  9. Babayigit, A., Olmez, D., Karaman, O., Ozogul, C., Yilmaz, O., Kivcak, B., ... & Uzuner, N. (2009, March). Effects of Ginkgo biloba on airway histology in a mouse model of chronic asthma. In Allergy and asthma proceedings (Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 186-191). OceanSide Publications, Inc.
  10. Augustin, S., Rimbach, G., Augustin, K., Schliebs, R., Wolffram, S., & Cermak, R. (2009). Effect of a short-and long-term treatment with Ginkgo biloba extract on amyloid precursor protein levels in a transgenic mouse model relevant to Alzheimer’s disease. Archives of biochemistry and biophysics, 481(2), 177-182.



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