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The memory pill; Flower power boosts mind power in the race to cure Alzheimer's.

Memory pills, if you can remember to take them, could soon boost our mental muscle. Eager to ease the misery of Alzheimer's, scientists probing the secrets of the brain are making headway with alternative and herbalist medicines.

The latest results mean popping memory pills could be less than five years away.

And the humble daffodil currently holds out the best hope in the mind power race.

Today, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain threw its weight behind gelantamine, a chemical found in daffodil bulbs, which has been successful in clinical trials. And could signal a breakthrough in the treatment of Alzheimer's Disease.

An RPS insider said: "This is very exciting. The fact that we are looking at a substance from daffodils may come as a surprise to many people. But nature is full of opportunities, if we only know where to look and what for."

These pills won't make you an A student just by taking them on the eve of a big exam but tests show that, over a couple of months, the chemicals can improve brain power.

This not only boosts our everyday ability to recall long lists of numbers or remember the name of every person in a busy conference room. It also has a huge market, as middle- aged people suffer the familiar shock of forgetfulness more often and worry about creeping loss of memory developing into something worse.

Talking of memory is almost like dealing with a world that doesn't exist. Animal studies suggest that the key to physically helping memory is to reinforce the junctions across which nerve cells communicate, through repeated stimulation.

The hippocampus is a region of the brain closely involved in the formation of memories.

Boosting the transfer of information between nerve cells is among the most promising of the experimental memory-enhancing techniques, though other avenues are being explored.

The brain is one of the most complex and least understood parts of the human body. Recent research from Oxford University suggests that folic acid found in dark green leafy vegetables and brown bread may help prevent Alzheimer's by lowering levels of homocysteine, an amino acid which can interfere with the blood supply to the brain.

High Street shops are already full of supplements with ingredients ranging from herbs to fatty acids.

But American scientists are becoming increasingly excited about a food supplement called phosphatidyl serine, or PS. Its powers appear to combat age-related memory loss.

One clinical psychologist and researcher, Dr Tom Crook of Arizona University, said: "There are dozens of compounds which claim to improve memory and learning. We have tested many of them and the only thing we've ever found that's clearly effective is PS."

PS is a naturally-occurring fat called a phospholipid and is found throughout the body - though it's found in greatest amounts in the brain.

It is essential for healthy cell membranes that control vital functions. With the right vitamin and mineral intake, the healthy body can manufacture all the PS it needs.

The ageing process and nutritional deficiencies, however, may cause a deficit and this can lead to a loss of brain power.

It may be that a change in eating habits is taking effect. Since PS is concentrated in brains, no longer a favourite family dish, the PS believers say we may need supplements as we reach middle age.

Another American neuroscientist, Dr Paul Clayton, believes side- effects are minimal. He said: "People who take large doses of PS sometimes experience vivid dreaming, nothing worse."

High Street health food shops have shelves stacked with brain-power supplements, such as ginko biloba, which is said to boost circulation in the brain, or antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, selenium, zinc and co-enzyme Q10.

The antioxidants work on the principle that every cell in the body, including the brain cell, is at risk from damage by free radicals. Antioxidants hoover-up free radicals throughout the body and so help to protect neurons in the brain, which may aid the fight against cognitive problems.

Substances called Bacosides have a similar effect. Fans of this herbal supplement, known about in India for 3000 years, say it makes the average person more alert, brisk and much less stressed.

But it is gelantamine that is causing most excitement.

David Greenwood, of Shire Pharmaceuticals in Hampshire, said tests of the drug's effect on Alzheimer's have been taking place since 1986. He added: "Trials have demonstrated unequivocal improvements on cognition.

"The drug exhibits insignificant plasma protein binding and it has a low potential for drug interactions.

"Gelantamine shows a very promising potential in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease."

Research indicates that the drug has a dual mechanism of action.

Like Alzheimer's treatments currently on the market, gelantamine inhibits an enzyme that breaks down a critical chemical messenger in the brain called acetylcholine. However, unlike other agents, gelantamine also appears to act on the brain's nicotine receptors. The controversial link between nicotine and a defence against Alzheimer's and Parkinson's has been a medical hot issue.

But there seems little doubt that altering these receptors could lead to release of more acetylcholine.

Wim Parys M.D., associate director of clinical research at Janssen Research Foundation in Belgium said: "Nicotinic modulation represents a new and intriguing field in Alzheimer's research.

"Reports suggest that stimulation of nicotinic receptors may be associated with fewer of the amyloid plaques that are a hallmark of Alzheimer's."

Side-effects include nausea, vomiting and stomach pain, though they usually fade after a week.

Today, the aid to brain power might be caffeine pills or strong coffee to ward off sleep. If the brain pill comes, will it really work? Professor Steven Rose, a neuroscientist at the Open University, chaired a recent meeting on the legal and ethical implications of such drugs.

He said: "Mention memory enhancers and one conjures up a picture of a drug which will recover the lost memories of the past. In practice, this is not what is on offer.

"We are discussing drugs which may improve the long-term retention and storage of new information. It might be as trivial - and essential - as where you left the house keys this morning."

Memory processes occur throughout most of the brain (striped area) but certain areas within and bordering on the limbic system - notably the hippocampus and mamillary bodies - appear indispensable to memory.

These areas, with the fornix, form the loop indicated in red at the top of the brain stem. The dotted area recedes into the left hemisphere.

Often people confuse memory with recall. Recall is at its best after learning as information "sinks in", but then it drops dramatically.

Review techniques, including activity and rest, can improve recall. For instance, when studying, read for 20 to 40 minutes at a time and take notes. Take a 10-minute break, followed by 10 minutes' recall, noting down all you can remember. The memory of the information will be reinforced by a two- minute review of it the next day and the next week.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:McLEAN, JIM
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Sep 9, 1998
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