Research & Education

Examining the Evidence for Ashwagandha in Cognitive Function

The prevalence of impaired cognitive function and neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, has increased in the past several decades. Researchers have investigated potential medicinal, nutritional, and herbal treatments to support memory and cognitive function and protect against neurodegeneration. Ashwagandha has a long history of use in traditional medicine, especially in Ayurveda medicine, including use for memory and cognition support. Thus, scientists have examined the potential for this herb to support cognitive function. 

There are many possible mechanisms behind ashwagandha’s potential support of brain health. Ashwagandha contains many bioactive compounds, including withanolides, alkaloids, and flavonoids. One study examined the different compounds in ashwagandha and found that withanone was the most active constituent for potentially protecting against Alzheimer’s disease. This compound inhibited amyloid-beta production in the brain tissue of the experimental animals, which improved cognitive function and memory. It also attenuated pro-inflammatory cytokines, including tumor necrosis factor-alpha, interleukin (IL)-2 beta, and IL-6. Another mechanistic study found that withanolide A exhibited inhibition of acetylcholinesterase, with a potentially high-binding affinity for the receptor. Cholinergic deficiency is associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Inhibiting acetylcholinesterase increases cholinergic activity, which may promote normal memory and cognitive function.

Ashwagandha has also been shown to support antioxidant status and promote a healthy inflammatory response, which may also support brain health.* These properties may promote redox balance, a healthy inflammatory response, immune function, and cognitive function. Ashwagandha also supports a healthy stress response to promote normal cognitive function.*

In addition to mechanistic studies, clinical studies have tested the efficacy of ashwagandha for supporting memory and cognitive function. One 8-week prospective trial of 50 patients with mild cognitive impairment compared taking 300 mg of ashwagandha root extract twice daily to a placebo. The ashwagandha group experienced statistically significant improvement in scores for immediate and general memory and executive function. Another randomized controlled trial on 60 subjects with bipolar disorder tested taking 500 mg of ashwagandha extract for 8 weeks compared to a placebo. The ashwagandha extract improved auditory–verbal working memory, reaction time, and social cognition compared to the placebo. A systematic review examined five studies that looked at the impact of ashwagandha supplementation on cognitive function. The researchers determined that in most instances, there was an improvement in executive function, cognitive tasks, attention, and reaction time.

Research shows that ashwagandha consumption may be a promising addition to making diet and lifestyle changes to promote normal cognitive function and support brain health.* Although the evidence points to the potential for ashwagandha to support cognition,* more research is necessary to further elucidate the mechanisms behind it and the optimal dosing. 

By Kendra Whitmire, MS, CNS