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Can traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) work on dementia? Research team identifies herbal treatments

  • A lack of early dementia diagnosis underscores the need for preventive measures; Hong Kong researchers have found TCM treatments that slow the brain’s ageing

  • The successful use of TCM ingredient artemisinin to treat malaria shows the promise of marrying modern science and technology with traditional Chinese medicine

An ancient text which chronicles the use of Chinese medicine, “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine”, includes references to forgetfulness, a condition which describes memory impairment and has symptoms similar to our modern-day diagnosis of dementia.

This text is said to have been written by Chinese emperor Huangdi around 2600BC and remains influential as a reference for practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

The ideas in the book are based on Taoist philosophy. Health and illness are the result of an imbalance between the forces of yin and yang and of the influence of the five elements’ – wood, fire, earth, metal and water – on the body’s organs.

There was an understanding then of a relationship between organs such as the heart and pulse, for example, even if those relationships are understood differently in medicine today. Despite its age, the work remains significant, not just as a reference for those practising TCM but because many of its original tenets hold true.

Dr Fanny Ip, a neurobiologist and senior research and development manager at the State Key Laboratory of Molecular Neuroscience at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), is familiar with the text. Her work uses modern approaches to investigate the potential benefits of TCM in the treatment of neurodegenerative and neurological disorders.

Ip says TCM “adopts a holistic approach to understanding bodily functions and disease, focusing on both prevention and treatment” – based on observing symptoms to reach a diagnosis.

So given our necessary obsession with dementia – someone in the world succumbs to the condition every three seconds – and the fact there’s no cure, we need to be thinking of ways to prevent it.

“Currently, the major obstacle in tackling dementia lies in the lack of early diagnosis,” Ip says. “Most people seek medical attention only when they experience obvious memory problems. However, biochemical changes in the body can occur up to 20 years before symptoms manifest.

“Taking the examples of blood glucose control in diabetes prevention as reference, or monitoring of cholesterol level in cardiovascular disease, we would like to raise awareness for the public that we can also protect and maintain brain health through preventive measures and management.”

"Brain health is determined not just by neural health, but also by the health of immune and vascular systems"

Dr Fanny Ip on findings of her team's research at HKUST

So what role might TCM play in protection against the degeneration of neurons and the breakdown in the brain’s messaging system that is seen in patients with dementia in all its forms – Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s disease-related dementia?

Ip explains that when neuronal degeneration reaches a certain stage, “where communication between neurons at synapses, the tiny connections between neurons for message transmission” deteriorates, we experience a decline in brain health and activity.

She likens this poor messaging to a faulty connection between a power socket and electrical appliances.

Her team’s research at HKUST, says Ip, “demonstrates that brain health is determined not just by neural health, but also by the health of immune and vascular systems”.

Because of TCM’s long history of clinical usage, it provides a natural screening system for ingredient combinations that show real efficacy, she says. TCM therapies target multiple systems to rebalance the body and restore brain health.

The holistic nature of TCM is key – the development of dementia has been identified as being the result of a physiological and/or psychological factors that act alone or together, including poor lifestyle choices, chronic illnesses, anxiety and depression.

In TCM, dementia is identified as being the result of many physical ailments – spleen-kidney weakness, blood stasis and phlegm stagnation.

It also suggests that dementia shows up not only in cognitive but also non-cognitive symptoms, including psychiatric disorders and sleep disturbance. This fact is borne out in modern medicine: dementia is not simply a disease about “forgetting”.

Chinese chemist Tu Youyou won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, the first science Nobel Prize awarded to a China-based scientist.

Tu’s 1972 discovery – of artemisinin, now a key component of the drugs which revolutionised malaria treatment – was rooted in ancient Chinese herbal medicine. The plant compound found in wormwood had been used in China in the treatment of malaria for 1,000 years.

That reminded everybody of the significance of TCM and its place in modern treatments, and is why scientists like Ip are always on the lookout for therapeutic traditional ingredients which may form part of future drug treatments.

So has Ip’s team uncovered TCM ingredients that show hope in dementia prevention? Some common TCM ingredient formulations have been shown to improve memory problems, says Ip. And her team is making them widely available.

In 2018, based on more than two decades of research in Chinese herbal medicines, it established a start-up, Infitech, that develops brain health products backed by science.

Three products under the Cogniherbs label have been shown to strengthen and support synaptic responses which aid signalling in the brain, which could promote learning and memory.

“We examined how these TCMs work in the system, and showed that some of them can directly enhance the communication between brain cells (neurons), the process underlying memory formation,” Ip says.

“We also showed that administration of the TCMs can benefit memory performance in aged mice or diseased mouse models, providing experimental evidence on how we can promote neuronal communication and retard neurodegeneration.”

Back to that other ancient illness, malaria. Artemisinins are among the most potent antimalarial agents dispensed today. One study tracked treatment with it for nine months and during that time, there were 80 per cent fewer malaria-related hospital visits.

Traditional Chinese medicine is old, and in age accumulates wisdom. Theories on treating dementia have also accumulated over the history of that tradition. While more research is needed, the marriage of traditional medicine with modern science and technology means that TCM will continue to play a key role in the fight against dementia.

Imagine a world with 80 per cent fewer dementia sufferers.

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