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Nitric Oxide and Memory Function

Do you sometimes go into a room at home and forget what you want there? When you return to what you were doing earlier, do you remember what you wanted in the other room? That is short-term memory loss. It is quite common as people grow older. It’s inconvenient but it doesn’t affect life that much. However, if you or a loved one forget faces, places, names and even events that happened recently, that is a more serious memory loss that can only get worse. Some types of memory loss are linked to injury and they heal slowly. Other types are linked to nitric oxide shortage and can be corrected by increasing nitric oxide production in the body.

Nitric oxide (NO) is a gas molecule that is known to play a crucial role in various physiological and pathological processes in the body. One of its important functions is its involvement in the regulation of memory function. NO is synthesized by the enzyme nitric oxide synthase (NOS) and acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. It has been found to contribute to various forms of synaptic plasticity, which is the ability of the brain to modify its structure and function in response to different stimuli.

Causes of Memory Malfunction

Head injury and stroke are common causes of memory loss but sufferers normally recover. Other memory loss is linked to deficiency of nitric oxide as discussed below.

Medications. Some prescription and over-the-counter medications cause loss of memory. These include: antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, muscle relaxants, antihistamines, and post-surgery pain medications. Some of them reduce/destroy the ability to produce nitric oxide in the brain which affects the health of blood vessels. Reduced blood flow to the brain starves it of oxygen and nutrients and this affects memory and other cognitive abilities.

Smoking harms memory by reducing the brain’s ability to produce nitric oxide. This affects blood vessel function, reduces blood flow to the brain and starve it of oxygen and nutrients. Studies have confirmed that smokers struggle to link faces with names than do non-smokers.

Illegal drugs can change brain chemicals, making it hard to recall memories.

Excessive alcohol intake has been known for a long time to cause memory loss.

Nutritional deficiency. Deficiencies in nitrates lead to insufficient production of nitric oxide. This affects the health of blood vessels in the brain leading to insufficient oxygen and nutrients in the brain. Also, deficiencies in protein, healthy fats, vitamin B1 and B12 specifically affect memory function.

Stress and anxiety make it difficult to concentrate and lock in new information and skills, causing memory problems in the short term. Chronic stress and anxiety lead to defective nitric oxide activity in the brain. This obstructs the formation of new memories and the retrieval of old ones.

Epilepsy and diabetes cause defective nitric oxide activity in the brain and stop the creation of new memories and make it difficult to remember old things.


How optimal NO levels improve memory

Luckily, if damage from a nitric oxide deficiency is mild, memory can be improved by increasing the production of nitric oxide.

Animal studies have discovered the synthesis of nitric oxide in the brain, and its role in a variety of brain and nerve functions. Its role includes learning, memory creation, blood vessel dilation, memory retrieval, immune response, food intake, cortical arousal, perception of dangerous stimuli, penile erection and yawning. Scientists found that NO is synthesized in the brain upon demand in these situations and is used immediately. It is never stored. Recent scientific evidence also suggests that NO affects short-term memory traces.

As far as scientists know, nitric oxide is synthesised from nitrates which are available in fruits, beetroot and dark green leafy vegetables. It is also synthesised from L-arginine and L-citrulline, amino acids that the body synthesises but are also available in food.

The increased nitric oxide in the body can then relax/dilate blood vessels, stop the clumping together of blood platelets, stop the formation of plaque in the blood vessels, and improve blood flow. Improved blood flow into the brain then improves the oxygen and nutrient supply to the brain. This improves memory and overall brain function.

Increasing nitric oxide formation will also prevent any damage that may be caused by prescription and non-prescription drugs. However, it is wise to also stop smoking and reduce alcohol intake because the substances cause too much harm.

Optimise Nitric Oxide to Improve Memory Function

If you have been experiencing memory loss, it is quite possible that there is deficiency of nitric oxide due to any of the causes mentioned above. To reverse the problem, you can take NO-producing dietary supplements such as those containing L-arginine and L-citrulline. If your memory functions well and you simply want to maintain it, you can increase your intake of fruits, beetroot, and dark green leafy vegetables for their nitrate content. You can also increase intake of proteins such as red meat, turkey, dairy, beans, soy beans, and chicken that contain L-arginine and L-citrulline. These amino acids are precursors to nitric oxide production.


What the research is saying

Several studies have investigated the role of NO in memory processes, and the results have been promising. One study found that NO is required for long-term potentiation (LTP), which is the process by which memories are formed and stored in the brain. LTP is a type of synaptic plasticity that involves the strengthening of the connections between neurons, and it has been shown to be essential for learning and memory.

Another study investigated the role of NO in spatial memory, which is the ability to remember the location of objects in space. The study found that the administration of an NOS inhibitor impaired spatial memory in rats, suggesting that NO is necessary for spatial memory formation.

A third study investigated the role of NO in fear memory, which is the ability to remember and respond to threatening stimuli. The study found that the administration of an NOS inhibitor impaired fear memory in mice, indicating that NO is also necessary for fear memory formation.

These studies suggest that NO is a crucial component in the formation and storage of various types of memories. However, excessive NO production can also have detrimental effects on memory function. High levels of NO have been associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, which are characterized by memory loss and cognitive decline.

Therefore, it is essential to maintain a balance in NO levels in the brain to ensure optimal memory function. There are several natural ways to boost cognitive function and promote healthy NO levels in the brain. One way is through exercise, which has been found to increase NO production and improve cognitive function. Another way is through diet, as certain foods such as beets, spinach, and dark chocolate contain compounds that can increase NO levels.

In conclusion, NO plays a crucial role in memory function, particularly in the formation and storage of various types of memories. However, excessive NO production can have detrimental effects on memory function and is associated with neurodegenerative diseases. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain a balance in NO levels in the brain through natural means such as exercise and diet.





1. Role in Synaptic Plasticity Nitric oxide (NO) plays a crucial role in synaptic plasticity, the ability of synapses to strengthen or weaken over time. This process is vital for memory formation and long-term potentiation (LTP).

2. Signaling Molecule As a signaling molecule, NO helps transmit information within and between cells, enabling communication between neurons and facilitating the formation of new connections, essential for memory storage.

3. Regulation of Neurotransmitters NO participates in the regulation of neurotransmitter release, including glutamate, which is critical for synaptic transmission and memory function.

4. Involvement in Memory Consolidation NO is involved in memory consolidation, the process by which short-term memories are transformed into long-term memories. Inhibition of NO synthesis can impair memory consolidation.

5. Effects on Cerebral Blood Flow By promoting vasodilation, NO increases blood flow in the brain, ensuring an adequate supply of oxygen and nutrients to the neurons, which is vital for optimal memory function.

6. Influence on Neurogenesis NO can positively influence neurogenesis, the process of creating new neurons, which is essential for maintaining cognitive function, learning, and memory.

7. Modulation of Neural Network Activity NO helps modulate the activity of neural networks, allowing for the efficient processing and storage of information, which is critical for memory function.

8. Reduction of Neuroinflammation By reducing neuroinflammation, NO helps preserve memory function, as chronic inflammation is associated with cognitive decline and memory loss.

9. Contribution to Antioxidant Defense NO contributes to the brain's antioxidant defense system, helping to protect neurons from oxidative stress, which can impair memory function and lead to neurodegenerative diseases.

10. Implications for Alzheimer's Disease Research suggests that impaired NO production may contribute to the development of Alzheimer's disease, highlighting the importance of NO for maintaining memory function and overall brain health.

Nitric Oxide Information

For more everything you need to know about nitric oxide and the role it plays in the human body, check out our comprehensive information page here.

Nitric Oxide Information

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Ron Goedeke MD, BSc Hons MBChB, FNZCAM

Dr. Ron Goedeke, an expert in the domain of functional medicine, dedicates his practice to uncovering the root causes of health issues by focusing on nutrition and supplement-based healing and health optimisation strategies. An esteemed founding member of the New Zealand College of Appearance Medicine, Dr. Goedeke's professional journey has always been aligned with cutting-edge health concepts.

Having been actively involved with the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine since 1999, he brings over two decades of knowledge and experience in the field of anti-aging medicine, making him an eminent figure in this evolving realm of healthcare. Throughout his career, Dr. Goedeke has been steadfast in his commitment to leverage appropriate nutritional guidance and supplementation to encourage optimal health.

This has allowed him to ascend as one of the most trusted authorities in the arena of nutritional medicine in New Zealand. His expertise in the intricate relationship between diet, nutritional supplements, and overall health forms the backbone of his treatment approach, allowing patients to benefit from a balanced and sustainable pathway to improved wellbeing.

Disclaimer: The information provided is for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified healthcare provider with any questions or concerns about your health. Never disregard or delay seeking medical advice because of something you have heard or read on this website.

Last updated on the 27th of April 2023

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