Ginkgo biloba is an herb often used as an alternative treatment to improve cognitive functions. Like most herbal treatments, the use of ginkgo is poorly regulated by government agencies, on the basis of either its efficacy or its health risks. This article reviews the experimental evidence available regarding efficacy, neurobiological actions, and health risks. Findings obtained in studies of humans often include demonstrations of rather mild cognitive enhancement. Interpretation of these findings is complicated by somewhat inconsistent findings, by experimental designs that do not permit identification of cognitive functions susceptible to the influence of ginkgo, and by the paucity of direct comparisons with other treatments. The number of peer-reviewed reports of studies in nonhuman animals is surprisingly small. In this small set, the findings reveal mild behavioral effects that might be attributable to actions on cognitive functions. However, these experiments in rodents, like those in humans, do not involve the use of designs to assess ginkgo's effects on particular cognitive attributes, and generally do not include direct comparisons with other treatments. Interpretation of the findings is further complicated by evidence, obtained in studies of both humans and rats, showing that a single administration of the treatment enhances performance on cognitive measures. If ginkgo has effects on cognition, there should be effects evident on biological processes as well. Neurobiological studies have largely examined the effects of chronic ginkgo administration, mirroring the most common design in behavioral studies. However, the addition of findings that single administration of ginkgo may influence behavior directs biological investigations to short-term actions of the treatment. Biological effects of ginkgo include vasodilation, protection of neurons from oxidative stress, and actions mediated by effects via neurotransmitters. Adverse reactions to ginkgo consumption have been observed but are relatively rare. Collectively, the behavioral literature reviewed cannot be used conclusively to document or to refute the efficacy of ginkgo in improving cognitive functions. At best, the effects seem quite modest. In particular, it is questionable whether effects of ginkgo, if present, are equal to those obtained by administration of acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, hearing an arousing story, or ingesting glucose.
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