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Dr. Rallie McAllister


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Herbal Extract May Improve Brain Function in Alzheimer's Patients


A natural chemical compound derived from a plant known as Chinese club moss may offer significant benefits to individuals suffering from Alzheimer's disease. A team of scientists from Sichuan University in China reached this conclusion last month after reviewing the results of six clinical trials involving a total of 454 patients.

The active ingredient in Chinese club moss is huperzine A, and it works by blocking the action of an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine in the brain. Acetylcholine is a chemical messenger that plays a critical role in normal brain function — including learning, thinking and memory.

Alzheimer's disease is believed to be caused, at least in part, by destruction of acetylcholine-producing neurons in the brain. As more of these neurons are destroyed over time, levels of acetylcholine become so low that the brain is unable to function normally.

By preventing — or at least slowing — the breakdown of acetylcholine in the brain, huperzine A effectively enhances brain function. Data from numerous clinical trials suggest that when patients with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia take supplements containing the herbal extract, they experience significant gains in terms of mood, memory, behavior, overall clinical status and quality of life.

Even better, regular use of huperzine A appears to slow the inevitable progression of Alzheimer's, especially in the early stages of the disease. The actions of the herb are so promising that in 2004 the National Institute on Aging launched the first large U.S. clinical trial to evaluate it as a treatment for mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease.

Chinese club moss, known in scientific circles as huperzia serrata, has been used for centuries by traditional healers as a natural remedy for the treatment of inflammation and fever. In recent decades, huperzine A has become the most commonly prescribed medication in China for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease and for other forms of dementia and memory problems.

The mechanism of action of huperzine A is remarkably similar to that of several prescription drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, including donepezil, marketed as Aricept, and tacrine, sold under the trade name Cognex. Both medications are associated with a number of unpleasant side effects, including nausea, diarrhea and insomnia.

To date, there are no reports of significant adverse side effects associated with the use of huperzine A in doses ranging from 200 micrograms to 400 micrograms daily.

The results of several clinical trials suggest that huperzine A is equally effective — or even superior to — the currently available FDA-approved prescription drugs in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

Compared to the medication tacrine, huperzine A appears to cross the blood-brain barrier more readily, remain effective longer, and have less potential for the development of drug tolerance and liver toxicity.

There's no doubt that huperzine A may provide significant benefits for patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the plant compound may also prove beneficial in the treatment of a number of unrelated diseases and disorders.

A team of researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of Utah recently reported their findings that in animal studies the herbal extract served as an effective treatment for the prevention of epileptic seizures.

Epilepsy is a brain disorder that has several underlying mechanisms, but all epileptic seizures are characterized by abnormal electrical activity and the uncontrolled firing of neurons in the brain. Huperzine A appears to help normalize electrical activity in the central nervous system and reduce the potential for seizures by blocking the action of glutamate, a brain chemical that can trigger neurons to fire out of control.

Huperzine A is known to protect nerve cells from toxic substances and has been used successfully in the treatment of myasthenia gravis, a disease marked by varying degrees of muscle weakness and dysfunction. Commonly referred to as a "smart drug," the plant compound has also been used to boost alertness and concentration in folks in all stages of life, ranging from young adulthood to old age.

In a number of clinical trials, individuals treated with huperzine A showed dramatic improvements on tests of learning and memory compared to those receiving placebo pills. Although huperzine A is generally considered safe for use by healthy adults, individuals diagnosed with any health conditions, including Alzheimer's disease, should use the supplement only as directed by a physician.

Rallie McAllister is a board-certified family physician, speaker and the author of several books, including "Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim." Her website is To find out more about Rallie McAllister, M.D., and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



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