msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 10/31/2003 4:47:51 PM ET 2003-10-31T21:47:51

The herb sage can be used to improve memory, British scientists said Thursday, backing up centuries-old theories about the plant. The new research could have significant implications for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, the new study suggests.

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Checking the writings of herbalists from four centuries ago, scientists at the northern English universities of Newcastle and Northumbria found a marked improvement in the memory capabilities of people taking sage oil extract.

In the study healthy, young adults who took sage oil capsules performed significantly better in a word recall test.

The finding was consistent with a discovery by researchers at the Universities’ Medicinal Plant Research Centre that sage protects a key chemical destroyed in Alzheimer’s.

“This research does have serious implications for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, as it will inform drug research and development,” lead researcher Nicola Tildesley said in a statement, noting sage has no side effects.

“This proves how valuable the work by old herbalists is, and they shouldn’t just be ignored because they were writing centuries ago,” she added.

The British team tested 44 healthy, young adults between 18-37 years. Some were given capsules containing sage oil while others were given placebos.

The volunteers were then given word recall tests to see how many words they could remember. Those who had taken the sage oil performed consistently better than those who had taken the placebos.

It is by no means the first time scientists have turned back to the plant world to find cures for diseases — particularly Alzheimer’s.

Johnson & Johnson and Shire Pharmaceutical already market a drug called Reminyl derived from daffodil bulbs while Britain’s Phytopharm is working on an experimental compound from an unnamed Asian plant.

Many of the current drugs have unpleasant side effects. No side effects were noted in the sage trial.

Alzheimer’s is one of the most common forms of dementia, affecting some 10 million people worldwide, making it one of the hottest areas of pharmaceutical research.

Researcher Tildesley played down sage’s benefit for people taking exams, however, saying more testing would be needed to demonstrate the herb’s effect on academic performance.

The research was funded by Oxford Natural Products.

Reuters contributed to this story.

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