Memory Moss

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A centuries-old Chinese folklore remedy for such obscure conditions as brain inflammation and lung carbuncles is now attracting the interest of the scientific community as a treatment for Alzheimer's.

Huperzine A (HupA), an alkaloid isolated from club moss, slows the progression of this degenerative neurological disease. It specifically helps preserve a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that affects memory and concentration. In Alzheimer's patients, acetylcholine levels are often low. While the brain regularly churns out the substance, another one called acetylcholinesterase (AChE) breaks it down to keep things balanced. By inhibiting AChE activity, HupA helps Alzheimer's patients conserve their already deficient supply of acetylcholine, which in turn benefits their memory.

While other Alzheimer's drug therapies exist, reports from China, where HupA has been administered successfully to 100,000 patients, are spurring more research to measure the benefits of this herb. At Georgetown University, Alan Kozikowski, Ph.D., a chemistry professor who first synthesized HupA in 1990, finds it may be more effective and targeted in its ability to inhibit AChE activity than other drugs. Meanwhile, studies at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science suggest that because HupA binds so specifically with the AChE enzyme, small quantities can be administered, resulting in few side effects.

But it's not as simple as eating a handful of club moss, says Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine in Portland, Oregon. "There's not enough HupA in the herb to work. Typical concentrated extracts have 1 percent. Though an extract of 95 percent or higher is available, it's prohibitively expensive," he explains.

A prescription strength form of HupA is not currently available, but HupA is on the market as a dietary supplement to help memory and concentration. Called Cerebra (and produced by Nutrapharm), the formula comes with a packaging recommendation of two to four 50 microgram capsules a day, with Alzheimer's patients and those with memory loss using the higher dosages.

A word of caution, though, to those without Alzheimer's who want to take the supplement as a memory-enhancing agent. HupA inhibits the breakdown of AChE, and it's not certain yet how that would affect a person in whom the levels are already normal. "I wouldn't want to see college students using it to help them ace their exams," explains Kozikowski. "But if you are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer's, you might want to take HupA preventively."

With a cure for Alzheimer's still eluding scientists, the recent HupA findings have recharged the search for an effective treatment. And where there's hope, a solution can't be far behind.