The team, from the Medicinal Plant Research Centre (MPRC) at the Universities of Newcastle and Northumbria, have provided scientific evidence for claims dating back centuries.
They studied texts by well-known herbalists such as John Gerard, who wrote about sage in 1597, saying that 'It is singularly good for the head and brain and quickeneth the nerves and memory", and Nicholas Culpeper, whose 1652 text says "It also heals the memory, warming and quickening the senses".
People were known to take sage for memory loss centuries ago and drank teas and tinctures containing extracts of the herb.
The results of the study are published in the current edition of the academic journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behaviour *.
The Newcastle team tested 44 healthy young adults aged between 18 and 37. Some were given capsules containing sage oil and others were given placebos.
The volunteers then took part in a word recall test and tested at intervals to see how many words they could remember. Results showed that those who had taken the sage oil consistently performed better than those who had taken placebos.
Sage is being investigated as a potential treatment for Alzheimer's Disease after earlier research by the MPRC found that it inhibits an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase (AChE) which breaks down the chemical messenger acetylcholine. Alzheimers', the most common form of dementia which affects an estimated 10 million people worldwide, is accompanied by a drop in acetylcholine.
Many of the current drugs, such as donepezil, have unpleasant side effects and doctors are keen to find alternatives. No side-effects were noted in the sage trial.
Further investigation is needed to find out why sage is so effective but researchers think it could be a combination of chemicals in the oil which have an effect on AChE and which give it antioxidant, oestrogenic and anti-inflammatory properties, also considered to be of value in Alzheimer's therapy.
Lead researcher Nicola Tildesley said: "This proves how valuable the work by the old herbalists is, and that they shouldn't just be ignored because they were writing centuries ago.
She added that people who were taking exams should not get too excited by the findings: "Test would need to be carried on people over a longer period of time to prove that sage improves exam performance but we don't have any plans to do this at present.
"However, this research does have serious implications for people suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, as it will inform drug research and development."
The research was funded by Oxford Natural Products. The MPRC is carrying out another clinical trial where sage is being tested on people with Alzheimer's, and results from this are expected shortly.
* Journal ref. Salvia lavandulaefolia (Spanish Sage) enhances memory in healthy, young volunteers, NTJ Tildesley et al, Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behaviour 75 (2003) 669-674. Contact the University Press Office for copies (available in PDF format or six pages via fax).
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