Can a Chinese Herb Help Dementia?

Small study says yes, but experts are wary

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HealthDay Reporter

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WEDNESDAY, June 11, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- A small study has shown that an herbal compound may improve memory, orientation and language in people who have mild to moderate vascular dementia as the result of a stroke.

Gastrodine, an extract from a tall gastrodia tuber, has been used in China for centuries to treat symptoms such as dizziness and headache resulting from hypertension, atherosclerosis or stroke, says study author Dr. Jinzhou Tian. The research was presented June 10 at the American Heart Association's Second Asia Pacific Scientific Forum in Honolulu.

The compound is not likely to be accepted in the West very easily, however.

"This study has some serious questions," says Bill Thies, vice president for medical and scientific affairs for the Alzheimer'sAssociation. "It's a relatively small study to begin with, only 120people."

In China, as in the United States and Europe, vascular dementia is the most common form of dementia after Alzheimer's disease and affects some 1 percent to 3 percent of the population. Medications for the condition are expensive, and the Chinese government is on a search for alternatives in the form of herbal medicines that might be cheaper and have fewer side effects.

"Chinese herbal medicines are not only less expensive and [with fewer] side effects than standard chemical medications, but they are also more accepted by the Chinese people," says Tian, who is director of the Institute of Geriatrics and head of the Department of Care of the Elderly at Dongzhimen Hospital of Beijing University of Chinese Medicine.

Gastrodine is the first herbal medicine to be assessed in a clinical trial in China for its effects on dementia.

For this study, Tian and his colleagues randomly assigned 120 people with mild to moderate vascular dementia to receive either gastrodine or Duxila, a French drug that purports to increase oxygen levels in the brain, three times a day for 12 weeks. Both medications were dissolved in water and taken by mouth. The study was a double-blind, randomized, controlled trial involving several clinical centers.

At the end of three months, the gastrodine and Duxila groups showed similar improvements in the areas of memory orientation, calculation and language.

The gastrodine group scored higher on the Blessed Behavioral Scale (BBS), including indices on behavior, activities of daily living and personality. There were also fewer side effects in this group. According to the study authors, overall improvement in the gastrodine group was 51.4 percent, with 16 of the 70 cases showing "much improvement," 20 cases showing "some improvement," and 34 cases showing no change. In the Duxila group, the overall improvement rate was 52 percent, with seven of the 50 cases showing "much improvement," 19 cases "some improvement," and 24 cases no change.

These numbers are not enough for other experts. "Roughly half the cases didn't respond at all in the treatment group, and that's always a signal that you may not have a real effect," Thies says. "I think it's nice that they got statistical significance, but I think there's a lot more work that would have to be done before we have any real idea."

Researchers will also need to determine if the compound has the potential to throw patients into toxicity, Thies adds. "There's a good reason to express a lot of caution with this," he says.

More information

For more on Alzheimer's, visit the Alzheimer's Association. The NationalInstitute on Aging has more on dementia and aging.

SOURCES: Jinzhou Tian, M.D., Ph.D., director, Institute of Geriatrics and head, Department of Care of the Elderly, Dongzhimen Hospital, Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, Beijing, China; Bill Thies, Ph.D., vice president, medical and scientific affairs, Alzheimer's Association; June 10, 2003, presentation, American Heart Association's Second Asia Pacific Scientific Forum, Honolulu

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