Melissa officinalis is a smart drug

The brain works better after a single high dose of Melissa officinalis. The memory function improves, discovered psychologists at Northumbria University. Melissa officinalis, better known as lemon balm and available over the counter, is a legal smart drug.

Herbalists in Europe have used extracts of Melissa officinalis – common name lemon balm – as a sedative and memory improver since the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century Paracelsus wrote that Melissa officinalis was effective against “all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system”.

The memory-stimulating aspect of Melissa officinalis has long been ignored however. Melissa officinalis is still easy to buy in the form of tea, herb or supplement, but the claim most often made is that the herb calms the digestive system or helps users to fall asleep. The British researchers studied the other aspects of lemon balm [Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2002 Jul; 72(4): 953-64.] after having done research on other herbs including ginseng [Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2003 Jun; 75(3): 687-700.] and ginkgo [Nutr Neurosci. 2001; 4(5): 399-412.].

In 2003 the Brits published the results of a study in which they gave 20 students aged 18-23 doses of 600, 1000 or 1600 mg powder made from dried Melissa officinalis leaves. This is the powder that the supplements contain.

The researchers then gave the students words, numbers and pictures to look at. The students then had to try and recall these six hours later.

The figure below shows that they were better at this after taking the highest dose of lemon balm.


The subjects were also asked to indicate on a scale how calm they were feeling. From this the researchers discovered that the 1600-mg dose had a noticeable effect.

The researchers were not able to work out exactly how Melissa officinalis works. They did discover that the herb doesn’t inhibit the enzyme cholinesterase. What is known is that unknown compounds in the herb attach themselves to the nicotine and muscarine receptors in the brain. These receptors are intended for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

The Brits suspect that Melissa officinalis contains substances that can help fight Alzheimer’s.

Differential, dose dependent changes in cognitive performance following acute administration of a Ginkgo biloba/Panax ginseng combination to healthy young volunteers.


We have previously shown differential cognitive improvements following single doses of Ginkgo biloba and of Ginseng. There is also evidence that chronic administration of a combination of standardised extracts of Ginkgo biloba and Panax ginseng may improve aspects of cognitive performance both in pathological populations and the healthy middle aged. No investigation has thus far looked either at the cognitive effects of single doses of such a combination, nor the effects of the combination on healthy young volunteers. The present study investigated whether acute administration of a combination of standardised extracts of Ginkgo biloba (GK501, Pharmaton SA) and Ginseng (G115, Pharmaton SA) had any consistent effect on mood and aspects of cognitive performance (“quality of memory”, “secondary memory”, “working memory”, “speed of memory”, “quality of attention” and “speed of attention”) that can be derived by factor analysis of the cognitive drug research computerised assessment battery. The study followed a placebo-controlled, double blind, balanced, crossover design. Twenty healthy young adult volunteers received 320, 640, and 960 mg of the combination, and a matching placebo, in an order dictated by random allocation to a Latin square, and with a seven-day wash-out period between treatments. Following a baseline cognitive assessment, further test sessions took place 1, 2.5,4 and 6 h after the day’s treatment. The most striking result was a dose-dependent improvement in performance on the “quality of memory” factor for the highest dose. Further analysis revealed that this effect was differentially targeted at the secondary memory rather than the working memory component. There was also a dose dependent decrement in performance of the “speed of attention” factor for both the 320 and 640 mg doses. These results are discussed in the context of previous findings within this series of studies.

PMID: 11842916 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]