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Natural Compound Huperzine A Fights Alzheimer’s, Made in Lab


Huperzine A, a compound found in a species of moss, has demonstrated an ability to improve cognitive function in people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but the plant is nearing extinction. Now scientists at Yale have developed a cost-effective way to make huperzine in the lab that far exceeds previous synthesizing techniques.

Huperzine A has shown promising results in cognition

Huperzine A is an enzyme inhibitor available in the United States as a dietary supplement to help maintain memory, but it has been used in China for more than a decade to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Dozens of studies have shown that it can be beneficial for people who have mild to moderate dementia or cognitive problems.

For example, results of a new double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in Cell Biochemistry and Biophysics reported on the effect of huperzine A in patients with mild to moderate vascular dementia. After 12 weeks of daily supplementation with huperzine A, cognitive and activities of daily living scores improved significantly in patients taking the supplement when compared with those taking a placebo (vitamin C).

Studies like this one point to the potential benefits of huperzine A in patients with cognitive impairments. However, the rapidly dwindling supply of natural huperzine A (derived from the Huperzia serrata plant) and the previous synthetic techniques, which are complex and produce yields of only 2 percent, have made future work with and use of this compound difficult.

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In the new Yale study, researchers report that they have developed a new way to produce large amounts of huperzine A in the lab. The method uses only eight steps (half the previous number) and achieves a yield of 40 percent.

Based on the previous production methods, huperzine A can cost up to $1,000 per milligram, which is a projected typical dose. According to Yale chemist Seth Herzon, who led the current research, he and his team believe they can reduce the price to just 50 cents per milligram using their new technique. They have already made several grams of huperzine A in their lab and can make much more.

Although there are other Alzheimer’s treatments based on enzyme inhibitors available, Herzon explained that huperzine A is superior because it binds better, is better absorbed, and lasts longer in the body. With the rising number of people developing cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia, the need for an effective management tool is critical.

Could huperzine A be one of them? Herzon noted that he and his team believe “huperzine A has the potential to treat a range of neurologic disorders more effectively than the current options available.”

Xu ZQ et al. Treatment with huperzine A improves cognition in vascular dementia patients. Cell Biochemistry and Biophysics 2011 Aug 11 (Epub ahead of print)
Yale University release