Did you remember to have a glass of wine last night? If not, it may be because you didn’t have a glass of wine to help you remember. The association of wine consumption and better memory has long been suspected, especially as it relates to cognitive decline with advancing age. Studies consistently find a correlation between long term moderate wine consumption and better mental function in older populations, but clinical studies – where one group is prospectively compared to another – are still hard to come by.
One such study comes from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Berlin. They compared 23 older adults given resveratrol for 26 weeks to an equal number given placebo. Before and after the study period, subjects underwent memory tasks and neuroimaging to assess volume and functional neural connectivity of the hippocampus, a key region implicated in memory. The resveratrol group had improvements in memory retention and increased neural connectivity over the placebo group.
These findings corroborate a study in rats, also evaluating the effects of resveratrol on the hippocampus. (Rats also suffer from declining memory with age, due to deterioration of hippocampal function.) After 4 weeks of either resveratrol or placebo, middle-aged rats showed improved learning and memory function with resveratrol but impairments in the control group animals. Resveratrol-treated animals also displayed increased neurogenesis and microvasculature.
But is it just resveratrol? A study from Columbia University compared drinking patterns in a multiethnic group of nearly 600 New Yorkers over age 65 to actual brain volume using MRI scans. Light-to-moderate drinkers, particularly wine, had significantly larger average brain volume than nondrinkers. This fits with the several population studies where wine drinkers have comparatively better cognitive performance (and not with what we were told about alcohol killing brain cells!)
One person who would not have been surprised by all this is the 13th century court physician Arnoldo da Villanova, one of the earliest to recommend wine as medicine. He published a special “wine for memory” recipe purported to be good for forgetfulness along with other beneficial properties.