Researchers at Rush University Medical Center are testing whether huperzine A, a natural moss extract used in Chinese medicine, can effectively treat the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
Huperzine A is used in China to treat Alzheimer's disease, and researchers at Rush are conducting a Phase II study to find out whether huperzine A can slow down or prevent Alzheimer's symptoms in patients with mild to moderate disease.
Huperzine A blocks the enzyme that breaks down Acetylcholine in the brain, and it is this loss of that chemical that leads to memory loss in Alzheimer's patients. The blockage that huperzine A provides helps to reduce memory loss in these patients, according to Raj Shah, MD, of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center and principal investigator in the study. Shah believes that huperzine A may provide several benefits to Alzheimer's patients, similar to those derived from antioxidants like Vitamin E.
Study participants will be randomly assigned to one of three groups during the six-month study. For the first four months of the study, two of the groups will receive different doses of huperzine A, and the third will receive a placebo. During the last two months, all participants will receive a dose of huperzine A.
Phase III studies in China have shown that the effectiveness of huperzine A may be comparable to that of approved drugs for Alzheimer's while reducing the harsh side effects, such as gastrointestinal upset, that are common with traditional Alzheimer's medicines.
The study is enrolling patients who cannot tolerate commonly used Alzheimer's drugs such as Aricept, as well as patients who have recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and are beginning to explore treatment, Shah said.
He noted that another potential benefit of this study is the cost savings of the herb compared to current FDA-approved medications for Alzheimer's disease. Currently, patients pay about $150 per month for Alzheimer's drugs, but because huperzine A is sold over the counter, the cost of care would be greatly reduced for patients if the herb is shown to be safe and effective and approved for treatment.
It is estimated that about 4.5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease. Increasing age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer's.