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‘Something good’ for Alzheimer’s in ayurveda

New Delhi, Dec. 26: Two traditional ayurvedic formulations have been shown for the first time to suppress key biological processes associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative brain disorders in fruit flies serving as laboratory models for these illnesses.

A team of scientists at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) has shown that the formulations called amlaki rasayana and rasa sindoor can independently suppress the accumulation of clumps of proteins in the brain, a hallmark feature of these neurodegenerative disorders.

Amlaki rasayana is a cocktail of herbs with amla, or the Indian gooseberry, as its primary ingredient, while rasa sindoor is a crystalline powder containing mercury and sulfur. The BHU researchers added these formulations, procured from the Arya Vaidya Kottakkal, Kerala, into the standard cornmeal-sugar-yeast diet of fruit fly larvae genetically-engineered to serve as models for brain disorders.

The fruit flies that got normal diet showed, as anticipated, an accumulation of beta-amyloid protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease, but the flies that received food laced with the ayurvedic formulations showed sharp reduced accumulation of beta-amyloid.

“We see direct evidence of something good happening to the flies that received the formulations,” said Mousumi Mutsuddi, a team member and assistant professor at the department of molecular and human genetics at the BHU.

The study, published yesterday in Current Science, a journal of the Indian Academy of Sciences, is being described as the first to demonstrate in fruit flies the potential of the two formulations to reduce protein accumulation linked to the disease.

“Both formulations appear to increase the activity of protein clearance mechanisms that mops away the accumulated proteins,” Subhash Lakhotia, professor of zoology at the BHU who led the study, told The Telegraph.

In another set of experiments, Lakhotia and his colleagues observed that the formulation-fed fruit fly larvae had reduced accumulation of proteins called polyQ inclusion bodies. These are typically seen in humans suffering from other degenerative disorders, including Huntington’s disease that causes intellectual decline and spinocerebellar ataxias that can cause people to lose their capacity to coordinate their own movements.

The study suggests that the two formulations can suppress changes before or while they occur and not after they have occurred. “We don’t see any evidence that they can reverse damage already done,” Lakhotia said.

But a senior neuroscientist who was not associated with the study said the relevance to clinical applications remains unclear because the accumulation of protein such as beta-amyloid plaque in Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t always correlate with its symptoms.

“There is no clear consensus yet on whether the plaque is the cause of the disease,” the neuroscientist who requested not to be named said. “There are people with plaque but without the intellectual loss seen in Alzheimer's disease,” the scientist told this newspaper. “But such studies could provide fresh insights into the biology of the disease — and perhaps lead to ideas for new drugs.”

The experiments indicate that rasa sindoor is more effective than amlaki rasayana in suppressing the protein accumulation. Sections of the medical community have long been concerned about the presence of mercury, a potentially poison, in rasa sindoor. But many ayurvedic experts say the complex preparatory process of making the formulation keeps mercury in a “non-toxic” form.