The treatment effect of nicotinic acid and xanthinol nicotinate on human memory was compared with placebo in 96 healthy subjects. Forty-three subjects were young (35-45 years), 30 subjects middle aged (55-65 years) and 23 subjects were old aged (75-85 years). Pre- and post-treatment scores were measured on a battery of memory tasks, covering sensory register, short-term memory and long-term memory. The treatment regime was 1 dragee t.i.d. for 8 weeks. The administration of xanthinol nicotinate (500 mg, containing 141.7 mg nicotinic acid), nicotinic acid (141.7 mg) and placebo (lactose) was double-blind. Pre-and post-treatment scores were analysed by means of a multivariate covariance technique, the pre-treatment score serving as covariate. Nicotinic acid treatment resulted in improvement of sensory register and short-term memory, while xanthinol nicotinate improved sensory register, short-term memory and long-term memory. In comparison with placebo, both active compounds yielded improvements of 10-40%, depending on type of task. Treatment effects of nicotinic acid were predominantly found in the young and middle-aged, whereas treatment effects of xanthinol nicotinate were predominantly found in the old. These results are interpreted by the supposed activity of nicotinic acid at the cell membrane, improving neuronal transmission, and of xanthinol nicotinate inside the cell, enhancing cell metabolism and oxygen supply in the brain. © 1985 Springer-Verlag.