Does GABA Improve Memory? GABA’s Cognitive Effects Explained

TL;DR Article Summary

GABA is a naturally occurring brain chemical that is also taken as a supplement to help with sleep and relaxation. Less is known about GABA’s effects on memory, though. What little evidence we have about GABA’s role in memory improvement shows it doesn’t work that well. While GABA is vital for different aspects of brain health and overall health, you may want to look for supplements other than GABA when it comes to improving your memory.

Introduction

Our brains use chemicals known as neurotransmitters to send messages between cells. One of these is called, you’ve guessed it, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is really important because one of the things it does is it helps keep our brains balanced and calm. We’re going to take a look at GABA and how it might affect our memory, including in people who have Alzheimer’s disease.

GABA: A Calming Brain Messenger

What’s GABA?

Simply put, GABA is a brain messenger. It is classified as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it calms our brains down and helps us relax. There’s some evidence it might also play a part in our memory function – more on this soon.

How GABA Works in Our Brains

GABA is found in several key areas of our brains. Studies in people with Alzheimer’s Disease show that they tend to have less GABA in some parts of their brain than healthy people of the same age. However, some studies have found higher levels of GABA in other areas of the brain in Alzheimer’s patients. [1]

Some of these brain areas – such as hippocampus – are directly involved in memory function.

GABA’s Connection with Memory

GABA and Working Memory in Healthy People

Let’s take a step back and look at what we know about GABA in healthy people. Studies show us that GABA levels in a specific area of the brain – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – can change when you are given a memory task. Or in other words, the more you push your brain to remember things, the more GABA your brain seems to produce. But after some time, the levels go down. This suggests that GABA is definitely involved in memory processes.

The Link Between GABA and Blood Flow in the Brain

But GABA doesn’t just exist on its own. It’s part of a complex network of processes in our brain. For example, studies have found links between GABA levels and blood flow in the brain. When GABA levels are high, changes in blood flow in some parts of the brain occur while doing memory tasks. GABA levels also seem to affect how brain regions respond to tasks – areas with higher GABA tend to respond less intensely.

What’s more, there are changes in GABA levels observed during tasks that are linked with changes in brain signals; this is measured with functional MRI. These connections suggest that GABA isn’t just involved in our memory, but also in the brain’s overall activity.

Supplementation with GABA

Okay, onto the big question: do GABA supplements improve memory? Let’s have a closer look.

GABA Supplements

The idea is that GABA supplements can increase the levels of this neurotransmitter in the brain, thereby potentially enhancing memory and cognitive functions. The thing is, GABA supplements must cross the blood-brain barrier to be effective, and the jury is still out on how effectively they can do this. GABA is a large molecule so there are some studies which show it doesn’t cross the BBB easily. [2]

While GABA supplements are popular, mostly among people seeking to reduce stress and insomnia, the scientific evidence showing its benefits for memory in particular is very, very scarce. And the evidence we do have doesn’t show much promise. You can always give GABA supplements a try, however, and see how they work for you, as each one of us is different.

Conclusion

Does GABA improve memory? As it stands, it probably doesn’t, if we’re speaking about GABA supplements. GABA, as a naturally occurring brain chemical, does have a role in memory function, but this doesn’t mean that by taking more GABA through supplements, your memory is going to get sharper all of a sudden. For this purpose, there are more researched supplements available, such as Phosphatidylserine, CDP-Choline, and Lion’s Mane Mushroom among others.

Further Reading:

References

  1. Mandal PK, Kansara K, Dabas A. The GABA-Working Memory Relationship in Alzheimer’s Disease. J Alzheimers Dis Rep. 2017 Jul 6;1(1):43-45. doi: 10.3233/ADR-170003. PMID: 30480228; PMCID: PMC6159718.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6159718/
  2. Hepsomali P, Groeger JA, Nishihira J, Scholey A. Effects of Oral Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) Administration on Stress and Sleep in Humans: A Systematic Review. Front Neurosci. 2020 Sep 17;14:923. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2020.00923. PMID: 33041752; PMCID: PMC7527439.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7527439/#:~:text=It%20is%20worth%20mentioning%20that,accounts%20regarding%20GABA%27s%20BBB%20permeability.

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