The root of an exotic orchid has been used for thousands of years in China to relieve pain, control convulsions and treat vertigo. Now, in modern scientific studies, it has demonstrated remarkable cognitive benefits. In fact, it looks like a wonder herb.

Whether it’s to improve blood flow to the brain, defend against toxicity, preserve memory or promote self-healing, this flowering plant seems to have just about everything you could ask to support brain function.

It’s called gastrodin. Here’s the scoop.

Rescues Brain Cells

In lab studies using human and animal cells, researchers from Singapore showed that extracts of gastrodin influenced almost a fifth of the genes that help reorganize and restructure neural connections. This remodeling (plasticity) stimulates processes that give brain cells new life and youth.

When rats were exposed to toxic lead to damage synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus – the part of the brain most associated with memory — the researchers found that gastrodin “can effectively rescue these lead-induced impairments.”

Gastrodin has also been shown to influence protein formation and thereby the growth of neurons, as well as a gene that helps brain cells transfer chemical and electrical signals to allow new memories to form.

Protects the Brain, Reduces Inflammation and Clears Debris

In the lab, gastrodin protected the brain’s key learning and memory centers in simulated Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. It also increased cell survival and reduced cell death.

A study published in PLoS One in 2011 showed that gastrodin can reduce general brain inflammation. The researchers concluded that “gastrodin has a potential as an anti-inflammatory drug candidate in neurodegenerative diseases.”

By switching on an enzyme, it can also clear amyloid beta proteins which are associated with Alzheimer’s, and even shift biochemistry away from producing them and towards creating normal, healthier proteins.

Boosts Blood Flow

Rodents that had undergone an ischemic stroke saw blood flow return to normal when gastrodin plus other Chinese medicinal herbs was given 30 minutes after the incident.

In another herbal combination that included gastrodin, 194 out of 202 patients suffering stroke and other brain injuries saw improvement in blood flow.

And 95% of patients with diminished circulation to the back of the brain saw better blood flow with gastrodin plus betahistine (a drug that treats vertigo) compared to 70% in the control group.

Rebalances Neurotransmitters

The brain can become stressed when overstimulated, resulting in an imbalance — too many excitatory neurotransmitters and too few inhibitory ones. Extreme imbalances are seen in neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s.

Gastrodin can raise levels of GABA, the brain’s main chemical messenger that calms nerve activity. In one study, gastrodin increased GABA by 34%.

Improves Memory

Several rodent studies demonstrated reversal of memory impairments caused by toxic drugs and exposure to aluminum. And another showed improved memory in mice that were supplemented with gastrodin compared to a control group that was not. But the most impressive demonstrations were seen in human studies.

A common complication of coronary bypass surgery is cognitive decline, thought to be caused by decreased blood flow and oxygen to the brain and increased levels of debris.

In a randomized, double-blind trial, 200 patients received either intravenous gastrodin or saline (a placebo). 42 percent of patients in the control group saw cognitive decline, including substantial memory loss, but only nine percent of those given gastrodin experienced a similar loss. After three months the figures were 31% and 6%.

In a three-month study of patients suffering mild to moderate vascular dementia following a stroke, the 70 patients who received gastrodin granules dissolved in water performed better on tests of mental function and behavior than did the 50 taking a drug used to treat the condition.

There can be few if any natural compounds that demonstrate such a wide-range of neuroprotective properties. It is available as a supplement from a number of companies (Life Extension, for example).