Scientist Studying Herb As Alzheimer's Therapy

06/14/05    Portland, Ore.

A study of the potential therapeutic effects of the dietary supplement gotu kola is among seven research projects being funded this year by Oregon's Tax Check-Off Program for Alzheimer's Disease Research.

Amala Soumyanath, Ph.D., associate professor of neurology, Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine, will use the $25,000 grant to continue her work on gotu kola, also known as Centella asiatica. Previous studies, in collaboration with Joseph Quinn, M.D., and Bruce Gold, Ph.D., at OHSU, have shown that gotu kola extracts reverse behavioral deficits in a mouse model for Alzheimer's disease and had protective effects on neuronal cells cultured in the laboratory. The title of her project is "Centella asiatica - a potential therapy for Alzheimer's disease."

"What we plan to do is to conduct in vitro tests using neuronal cells taken from animals, or cultured human neuronal cells to look at ways gotu kola may have beneficial effects in the nervous system in protecting neurons," Soumyanath said. "We're looking at two things: identify the mechanisms by which gotu kola might work; and identify components within gotu kola that have these effects."

She said her ultimate aim is to "be able to carry out clinical trials in human beings. We want to see if gotu kola is of benefit in Alzheimer's patients to relieve or delay cognitive impairment." Herbal products can vary considerably in composition depending on the geographical origin, climatic factors and production method. Information from the current project will help researchers conduct well-designed trials for which the gotu kola preparations have been confirmed to contain the relevant active components.

The Oregon Alzheimer's Disease Research Small Grants Program, funded by the Tax Check-Off Program for Alzheimer's Disease Research, provides grants ranging from $21,100 to $25,000 each for research projects at Portland State University, the University of Oregon, the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center and OHSU. The grant period is from June 1, 2005, to May 31, 2006.

Other recipients include:

* "Annotation and Automatic Approximation of Language-use Metrics for Detection of Mild Cognitive Impairment," Brian Roark, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science and engineering, Center for Spoken Language Understanding, OHSU OGI School of Science and Engineering, $25,000.
* "The In Vivo Role of N-terminal peptides from APP-related proteins," Doris Kretzschmar, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular and medical genetics, OHSU School of Medicine, and assistant scientist, OHSU Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology, $25.000.
* "Rapid Estrogen signaling modulates receptor localization," Laird C. Sheldahl, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in physiology and pharmacology, OHSU School of Medicine, $24,995.
* "Genetics and Successful Brain Aging," Deniz Erten-Lyons, M.D., instructor in neurology, OHSU School of Medicine, $24,300.
* "Unobtrusive in-home activity assessment for multi-person homes," Tamara Hayes, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering, OHSU OGI School of Science & Engineering, $24,882.
* "Distribution and trafficking of mutant PrP," Randal Nixon, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of pathology, OHSU School of Medicine, director of the neuropathology core, OHSU Layton Aging & Alzheimer's Disease Center.

Grant recipients are determined by the Alzheimer's Research Partnership, an alliance of scientists and administrators from OHSU, Providence Health System in Oregon, Kaiser Permanente, the Oregon chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, Portland State University and Oregon State University. The Layton Aging & Alzheimer's Disease Center serves as steward for the program's funds.

Grants are awarded to clinical investigators and basic scientists for clinical, biological, behavioral or health system research that will advance understanding, treatment and prevention of Alzheimer's disease. Appropriate fields include the neurosciences, nursing, social work, epidemiology, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, economics, counseling, delivery of health care services and others relevant to Alzheimer's research or practice. Applicants are evaluated on scientific merit, but priority is given to investigators just entering the field of dementia research and to new or innovative projects.

As a pharmacognosist, Soumyanath is an expert in the study of medicines derived from botanicals. She said gotu kola was chosen for closer study from a group of herbs she was examining because "this particular herb came out showing some interesting effects in animals and cell models. This tax check-off grant supports the follow-up to that."

A slender plant with fan-shaped leaves that's found primarily in the swampy regions of India, Madagascar and other tropical climates, gotu kola has traditionally been used in the ancient Hindu system of healing known as Ayurveda and in Chinese medicine as a nerve tonic and memory-enhancing agent. It's often prepared as a tea and can be dried for use in capsules. Soumyanath's laboratory uses a water or alcohol extract of the herb.

Dr. Soumyanath is the director of research and development for Oregon's Wild Harvest, the manufacturer of investigational products used in this research. This potential conflict was reviewed and a management plan approved by the OHSU Conflict of Interest in Research Committee was implemented.