Information about Investigational Alzheimer's Treatments Using Supplements

Some research suggests that the dietary supplement ginkgo biloba has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects within the brain. However, other studies have found that it does not reduce the incidence or symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

Several other dietary supplements are under investigation for their ability to stave off or slow cognitive decline. Some of the more promising potential treatments include a mix of antioxidants (vitamin E, vitamin C, alpha-lipoic acid, and coenzyme Q10), omega-3 fatty acids, curcumin, and huperzine A.

The omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), found in fatty fish and fish oil, has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. It is the most abundant fatty acid in the brain and is crucial for normal vision and brain functioning.

Increasing evidence suggests that adequate levels of DHA may reduce the risk of developing dementia. It's not clear, however, whether boosting DHA levels through fish consumption or fish oil supplements can slow cognitive decline among people who already have mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's disease.

Curcumin is the primary yellow pigment in the spice turmeric (used in curry powder). It has potent anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and cholesterol-lowering effects and is being studied as a treatment for several aging-related diseases, including cancer. In animal models of Alzheimer's disease, curcumin has reduced brain inflammation, oxidative damage, and accumulation of beta-amyloid.

Huperzine A (Hup A) is a natural cholinesterase inhibitor derived from the Chinese herb Huperzia serrata. Hup A is believed to have antioxidant and neuroprotective effects. In several small, randomized controlled trials in China, Alzheimer's patients given the supplement showed improvements in tests of cognitive function.

A recent review of available published studies on Hup A suggests that the herb may have some beneficial effects on general cognitive function, functional ability, behavior, and overall health among people with Alzheimer's disease. But larger, randomized clinical trials are needed before Hup A—or any of the other dietary supplements discussed here—can be recommended to improve memory or prevent or treat dementia, especially because side effects may outweigh any benefit.

Publication Review By: Peter V. Rabins, M.D., M.P.H.

Published: 14 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 29 Jun 2011