TIRED of making things-to-do notes daily and not remembering where you kept them? Frustrated with cramming all night for tomorrow's examination and then blanking out? Upset over not being able to read more than two pages at a time? In short, suffering from brain fatigue? Not to worry. Memory Plus is here. Sounds like an advertisement by a roadside vendor hawking traditional panacea? Well, it might have been had it not been endorsed by Minister of State for Science and Technology, Y.K. Alagh, (he exhorted all parliamentarians to pop the memory joggers daily). Researched and developed by the Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI), Lucknow, and priced at Rs 6 per capsule, Memory Plus promises benefits such as rejuvenating the brain cells during an examination or memory enhancing powers.
The so-called wonder drug, however, is nothing but the concentrated extract of the age-old, ayurvedic medicinal plant Brahmi, traditionally used to boost anything from a failing memory to fading virility. Says V.P. Kambhoj, director CDRI: "Memory Plus is not new. We've merely extracted the essence and put our stamp saying it's safe and efficacious." But it seems it's the lure of the big bucks that's of the essence, and not the drug itself. The CDRI has given a seven-year licence to Rajkumar, a shampoo manufacturer from Chennai , who has launched an advertising blitzkrieg. Hoardings in the major metros highlighting the fact that it's a CDRI product and hence credible. Chess celebrity Vishwanathan Anand was the first to endorse the drug last year with ministers, MPs and bureaucrats following suit, notable among them are External Affairs Minister I.K. Gujral, former prime minister Chandra Shekhar, and former chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan. Free sachets are being distributed in schools (it's no coincidence that the launch was on the eve of annual examinations).
Says Rajkumar: "It's India's answer to the Korean Ginseng and the Chinese Gingko." Research, he adds, has shown that MemoryPlus is 10 times more powerful than these oriental herbs. He's running a business of Rs 3-4 crore a month and has received favourable responses from across the world.
But how valid are the claims of Memory Plus? Some crucial facts: Unlike allopathic drugs which undergo rigorous safety and efficacy trials, traditional medicines can be introduced into the market straightaway; the fact that they have been in use for eons is supposed to be assurance enough.
But Memory Plus, claims Kambhoj, is the first ayurvedic drug to be subjected to scientific scrutiny. Although entirely unnecessary, as no law demands it, one can imagine the powerful impact a scientific seal has on popular imagination. CDRI scientists claim that rats injected with the drug responded with enhanced alertness and discernment to stimuli such as brightness of light.
It is on the basis of these tests, that Rajkumar claims: "Memory Plus can enhance memory and intelligence levels within 30 to 45 days, with effects being felt within four-six days." But what about claims that it triggers hair growth and lowers blood pressure? Surely it smacks of a marketing gimmick? Then there are questions to which CDRI scientists have no answers: whether it cures memory disorders such as Alzheimers or amnesia; does it conjure up short-term or long-term memories. Nobody knows, since there have been no human trials.
Memory Plus is yet another example of how drug companies rake in the big bucks by selling 'smart drugs' that cure "dizziness, forgetfulness and concentration problems". There is little, if any, evidence to support these claims. Says Steven Rose, professor at the Brain and Behaviour Research Group at the Open University, UK, and the award-winning author of The Language of Genes: "A normal person taking these drugs could at best feel the placebo effect—expect to feel better as a result of taking them." He adds that it could be harmful to throw chemical spanners into the workings of the brain.
But such caveats haven't stopped students and the elderly from turning to such drugs that will help improve their memory power. And since the tendency is to take them lifelong, drug companies are assured of a steady demand. Meanwhile, discernment is the keyword for the memory-impaired.