A traditional Chinese medicine known as smart soup (聰明湯) could help in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease, scientists on the mainland believe.
The simple treatment helped relieve and even reverse Alzheimer’s symptoms in mice that had been genetically modified to acquire the disease, researchers with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology in Shanghai found.
The rodents began to show improvements after just six days of being fed the medicine, which consists of three herbs – rhizoma acori tatarinowii（石菖蒲）, poria cum radix pini （茯神）and radix polygalae（遠志）.
The researchers believe that chemicals in the herbs both inhibit the growth of amyloid-beta, an amino acid thought responsible for Alzheimer’s, and protect neurons from its effects.
Alzheimer’s disease is one of the biggest threats facing the elderly – it has been diagnosed in about 30 million people across the world and that figure is expected to double every 20 years, according to the World Health Organisation. Sufferers face increasing cognitive problems including speaking impairment and memory loss.
Mice treated with the smart soup regained the ability to find hidden platforms and their memory also showed improvement, researchers said. When faced with a new object, they would explore it for significantly longer than they did before they were treated, which researchers said was evidence of improved memory.
The findings were published in the online scientific journal PlosOne this month.
Dr Zhao Jian, associate researcher with the Shanghai institute and co-author of the paper, said the smart soup had also showed promise in early tests on humans. The team had been collaborating with hospitals in Shanghai for two years, monitoring volunteer patients taking the medicine, she said.
The goal of the research project, funded by government agencies including the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Ministry of Science and Technology and the municipal government of Shanghai, is to develop safe, universally effective, low-cost therapies to fight and prevent Alzheimer’s.
“We not only want to cure the disease, but to prevent it before the occurrence of serious symptoms. The medicine not only needs to be effective, but affordable to the mass population,” Zhao said.
“The smart soup now looks like one of the most promising candidates, which comes with low cost, proven effectiveness and some likely general benefits to the brain.”
Zhao said the research had been “extremely difficult” – it had taken the team more than two years to decipher some of the chemical mechanisms involved.
Alzheimer’s is believed to be mainly caused by amyloid-beta, or abeta, a protein fragment molecule found in the brains of sufferers. The growth of abeta molecules can damage neurons and affect the normal functioning of the brain.
The scientists found the smart soup, or more specifically the radix polygalae, could significantly reduce the generation of abeta, with the levels in treated mice more than 18 per cent lower than in those untreated.
The other two herbs – rhizoma acori tatarinowii and poria cum radix pini – appeared to protect the neurons against the damaging effect of abeta. The findings were observed in experiments involving both mice and fruit flies, Zhao said.
Zhao said the development of Alzheimer’s was a long process. Some patients acquired the disease nearly two decades before symptoms appeared.
But the experiments showed the effect of smart soup was greatest when administered before the disease fully developed.
“The earlier the treatment, the better the results. That’s why we are very interested in the smart soup’s potential as a preventive therapy,” she said. However, she cautioned that the research was still in its early days: “The formula, though only herbs, was still a medical prescription. Until future research confirms it is safe for healthy people, we do not suggest massive use of the therapy on normal populations.”
Zhong Jian, a Chinese medicine doctor in Guangdong, said smart soup had been around for hundreds of years and was commonly prescribed to patients with brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The first official record of it appeared in Gu Jin Yi Jian, a medical book published in 1576. “Chinese medicine has many formulas with good clinical results but poor recognition by Western medical society, because we don’t know how to explain it in the language of modern science,” Zhong said.
Hua Zhou, associate professor of pharmacology at the Macau University of Science and Technology, said the paper was scientifically robust.
“The three herbs have been used by traditional medicine doctors for a long time. They can be found in any Chinese herbal pharmacy,” he said. “But the animal tests are only the first step. How, and to what extent, the formula can be used against the disease will depend on the final results from comprehensive and rigorous clinical trials.”
Armed with cutting-edge technology, mainland scientists have made numerous experiments on the effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine.
Last month, a team at Nanjing University reported evidence showing honeysuckle could be used to treat the flu virus.
They found a gene of the herb could suppress the replication of the virus in rats’ lungs and blood, significantly reducing deaths from viral strains such as H5N1, according to their paper in the scientific journal Cell Research.