A plant used widely in China is the focus of a national clinical trial that aims to see if it could help treat Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia.
The University of North Carolina Hospitals are participating in the national clinical trial on Chinese club moss, which is already being sold in stores with nutritional supplements and is used in China as a treatment for cognitive disorders.
The study, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, is one of a growing number of federally funded research studies focused on natural and alternative therapies. The centers of the National Institutes of Health expect to spend $300.5 million in complementary and alternative medicine research in the 2007 budget year.
Even with the recent financial commitment, research in that area is limited, making it difficult for doctors to get information that is essential to understanding the risks and benefits of certain treatments.
"That kind of data is completely missing today from most nutraceuticals," said Dr. Daniel Kaufer, a neurologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is one of the trial's investigators.
Patients in the trial receive either a placebo or dose of Huperzine A — an alkaloid extracted from the plant — that is larger than what's currently available in stores. After the placebo-controlled phase, all patients take doses of Huperzine A for eight weeks and have the option to continue taking it if they believe it's helping.
Investigators test patients' cognitive functions throughout the trial, Kaufer said.
Marion Hinsdale, 83, decided with help from her daughter, Marjorie, to participate in the trial to see if the treatment could help with her memory and cognitive problems.
"Both my mother and I are interested in anything that would be considered homeopathic," said Marjorie Hinsdale, who lives with her mother in Chapel Hill. "The fact that this is a Chinese herb was intriguing to both of us."
While some studies involving natural therapies have been unsuccessful, trials that prove certain therapies work have credibility with consumers and doctors.
"It gets their attention and provides evidence that botanical medicine is very powerful," said Christie Yerby, a Chapel Hill specialist in botanical medicine.
The Hinsdales aren't sure if Huperzine A helped Marion, who decided to keep taking the supplement after completing the first part of the trial.
"We just wanted to contribute in what small way we can," Marjorie Hinsdale said.