Ginkgo and Memory

Ginkgo products have become a hot commodity in the twenty-first century, but do they actually boost memory?

Return to main article:

High on an upper bookshelf in Peter Del Tredici’s office sits a faded box of organic breakfast cereal called GinkgOs. In large letters, it proclaims: “For Sharp Thinking.” The millions who now take Ginkgo biloba products for better memory assume they are benefiting from ancient Chinese medical wisdom. Not at all, said Del Tredici: “It all began in a board room in Germany in the mid 1960s. The ancient ‘doctrine of signatures’ says that because a walnut looks like a brain, it must be good for the brain. By extension, if a Ginkgo lives ‘forever,’ it must be good for promoting long life.” The German firm Schwabe Pharmaceutical and a French subsidiary developed ginkgo-leaf extract into one of the blockbuster herbal medicines. Early in vitro research on the extract was promising—the substance appeared to promote blood flow. Said Del Tredici, “The rest is history. Ginkgo has become a hot commodity in the twenty-first century, a big cash cow” with annual sales topping $500 million.

Del Tredici found himself involved in this world soon after his first China trip. In early 1990, he flew down to Sumter, South Carolina, to see for himself a 1,000-acre ginkgo plantation with 10 million waist-high trees established in 1982 by the French Schwabe subsidiary. “I met the Swiss agronomist,” recalled Del Tredici, “and asked him if the trees were producing basal chichi. He said not at all. The whole operation was mechanized. They stripped the leaves off these plants in the summer and then they ran a chipper over them. They sprouted out the following spring. I knew the trees must be stressed, and that’s when ginkgos start producing basal chichi. So I proposed we get some shovels and dig down and see. To their amazement, there were all these chichi producing vigorous young shoots.”

So began Del Tredici’s decade as a consultant working for the French subsidiary manipulating either the quantity or the quality of those ginkgo leaves. “How the plants affected people’s physiology,” he said, “that was not my world.” In 2003, Schwabe provided Ginkgo biloba for five-year controlled trials in the United States, to see if the leaf extract proved helpful for memory loss. The 2008 and 2009 studies, Del Tredici said, “showed no significanteffect by ginkgo-leaf extract in patients suffering from dementia or memory problems.” 

Read more articles by: Jill Jonnes

You might also like

General Counsel Diane Lopez to Retire

Stepping down after 30 years of University service

Navigating Changing Careers

Harvard researchers seek to empower individuals to steer their own careers.

Easing the Energy Transition

How the Bezos Earth Fund hopes to seed economic transformation

Most popular

Transitions Gradual and Cataclysmic

Andrew Knoll on the planet’s past—and fraught future

The Context: Daniel Lieberman on Food Addiction

Framing the news with our best articles on diet and health

How Paper Crumples

The research provides insight into the way materials react to repeated strain.

More to explore

Illustration of a box containing a laid-off fossil fuel worker's office belongings

Preparing for the Energy Transition

Expect massive job losses in industries associated with fossil fuels. The time to get ready is now.

Apollonia Poilâne standing in front of rows of fresh-baked loaves at her family's flagship bakery

Her Bread and Butter

A third-generation French baker on legacy loaves and the "magic" of baking

Illustration that plays on the grade A+ and the term Ai

AI in the Academy

Generative AI can enhance teaching and learning but augurs a shift to oral forms of student assessment.