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Can Traditional Herbal Medicine Help with the Treatment of Dementia?

As our population ages, the cases of dementia will exponentially rise. Although dementia is not limited to older people, it is most often associated with the elderly. However, there is growing concern at the rapid rise of diagnosed cases of people between the ages of 40 and 60. Dementia encompasses a group of clinical symptoms affecting memory, thinking, and social abilities and is characterized by progressive impairment of memory performance and cognitive functions. Globally, it is estimated that around 50 million people are currently living with dementia. The factors that contribute to dementia are aging, brain ischemia, toxin exposure, and oxidative stress. Unfortunately, although there has been some progress in medication development, most prescriptions provide a temporary reprieve at best and also have many negative side effects. There are still no medications that can stop the progression long-term or cure this debilitating disease. As the currently available treatments are not adequate, more doctors, patients, and pharmaceutical companies are looking at how medicinal plants may provide answers.

Traditional medicine has been practiced for thousands of years. It is the oldest form of health care in the world and is used in the prevention, and treatment of physical and mental illnesses. Chinese herbal medicine is currently used in the health care of an estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide with several herbs and ingredients combined according to strict rules to form prescriptions. Pharmaceutical companies have been developing successful drugs from plant-based formulas for many years including the current anti-malaria treatment as well as many anticancer drugs. During the period between 1981 and 2002, the application of natural products in the development of new drugs showed tremendous success especially in the case of antihypertensives, where about 64% of newly synthesized drugs have their origins in natural product structures. With an estimated 250,000–500,000 existing plant species and only a tiny portion being scientifically researched, there is still tremendous potential for plants to help us stop the progression or cure some of the most devastating diseases like dementia.

Some of the most promising plant derivatives that are being used in the study of dementia treatments are the following:

Ginkgo biloba (Gb) L

Gb has been widely used for the treatment of various neurovascular disorders, such as vertigo, tinnitus, venous insufficiency, fatigue and age-related physical and cognitive disorders. It has been extensively studied as an effective treatment for memory impairment. Also, it has been reported as an effective therapy against a wide variety of CNS disorders, such as depression, anxiety, stroke, and cerebral insufficiency. Gb extract has potential therapeutic effects on ischemic brain injury, cognitive and neurological disorders by improving cerebral perfusion and inhibiting platelet-activating factors.

Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha)

Withania somnifera or Ashwagandha or Indian Ginseng (fam. Solanaceae) is a popular Ayurvedic medicinal plant known for its adaptogenic and antistress effects. Ashwagandha is an essential ingredient in Thai traditional medicine; it is used for enhancing memory and body functions. The study findings revealed that oral administration of withanoside IV (10 micromole/kg/day) markedly induced neurite outgrowth, restored memory defects, and protected mice from axonal, dendritic and synaptic loss. In a preliminary placebo-controlled trial, Chengappa et al have studied the cognitive impact of standardized W. somnifera extract against bipolar disease. The researchers observed that W. somnifera extract (500 mg/day) significantly enhanced the cognitive tests and improved auditory-verbal working memory.

Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer (Ginseng)

Ginseng is a slow-growing perennial herb widely cultivated in northeastern China. In the last decade, many experimental studies have shown that this plant has a key function in preventing neurodegeneration and improving learning and memory deficits. Some studies indicate significant improvement in cognitive abilities and neurological responses in the ginsenoside Rg2 group relative to the disease control group.

Curcuma longa (Turmeric)

Curcuma longa L. is a tuberous herbaceous perennial plant with yellow flowers and wide leaves, belongs to the Zingiberaceae family, and grows in the tropical climate. In traditional Indian medicine, turmeric is widely used for the treatment of many pathological conditions, such as asthma, epilepsy, gallstone and diabetic. As previously described, neuroinflammation is one of the key causes of cognitive decline. Curcumin has been found to enhance glutathione expression, antioxidant enzyme and heme oxygenase in dementia and AD patients. Researchers demonstrated that curcumin could significantly enhance cholinergic activity, attenuate oxidative damage and improve memory deficits and lower AD incidence has been observed in the Indian population consuming a curcumin-rich diet compared to the US population.

Glycyrrhiza Genus

Glycyrrhiza or liquorice is a perennial herb growing in the Mediterranean region, Asia, Southern Russia, and Iran. In Ayurvedic and Unani medicine, liquorice is extensively used for various medical conditions, such as inflammation of respiratory airways and gastrointestinal tract disorders. Glycyrrhizin has neuroprotective potential via prevention of mitochondrial damage, attenuation of oxidative stress, and restoration of glutathione depletion. Isoliquiritigenin is another component identified in Glycyrrhiza species produces potential effectiveness against dementia similar to memantine.

Tea (Camellia sinensis)

Worldwide, green tea, black tea, and oolong tea are popular stimulant drinks. In traditional Indian and Chinese systems of medicine, green tea is also used for the treatment of obesity, diabetes mellitus, and neuro-inflammation. Evidence from animal and human studies shows the crucial role of green tea-related compounds on cognitive functions and memory impairment and plays a key role in the prevention and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.

Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri)

Bacopa monnieri (L.) also known as Brahmi, belongs to Scrophulariaceae family, it is a creeping, succulent, herb cultivated in the wetlands of the Indian subcontinent. Brahmi herbs have long been used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine to improve cognitive deficits related to brain aging. Brahmi can improve cognition by increasing blood flow, not necessarily due to direct interactions with neural cells. Studies have found that oral administration of Brahmi extract at 30mg/kg for 14 days significantly improved memory and learning capability and improved the morphological changes due to oxidative damage induced by intracerebroventricular-streptozotocin (ICV-STZ) in the brain tissue of tested animals.

Nigella sativa

Nigella sativa is a small black seed that belongs to the Ranunculaceae family, native to Southern Europe, North Africa, and Asia Minor, and it is also cultivated in Pakistan and India. N. sativa has long been used in traditional medicine as astringent, diuretic, anthelmintic, and for the treatment of intermittent fever and skin disease. Emerging evidence confirms that flavonoids of N.sativa are able to modulate specific changes in hippocampal protein expression involved in the learning and memory process. Study results explored that N. Sativa purified oils enhanced memory performance, cholinergic activity, and reduced oxidative stress in rat brain tissues. Another clinical study investigated the effect of N. sativa on anxiety and cognitive decline. The study findings reported that oral intake of N. sativa 500 mg/day over four weeks as a nutritional supplement was found to stabilize mood, decrease anxiety and modulate cognition on adolescent human male participants.

In summary, while there is still no cure for dementia, there is hope that answers will be found through some of the ongoing studies that have been outlined above. In the meantime, we can all make some lifestyle modifications such as engaging in more physical exercise, eating healthier, and practicing cognitive and social activities. While these modifications are certainly not a full-proof guarantee of dementia avoidance, they are considered effective means for disease treatment and prevention.

To read the full study about the potential of plant-derivatives in pharmaceutical research, go here

To read the full study and to get a complete list of plant-derived studies on dementia, you can go here.

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