The researcher is investigating whether dietary supplements can help to slow the rate of cognitive decline.
Prolonging human life is one of science’s greatest achievements, but the holy grail of medicine would have to be arresting the deterioration in brain function, which can affect quality of life as people age. PhD candidate Matthew Pase is at the forefront of an ambitious new study to investigate whether dietary supplements can help to slow the rate of cognitive decline.
The Swinburne trial is timely. “Our population is growing significantly older. One of the problems with ageing is cognitive decline,” says Professor Con Stough, the study’s lead investigator. He adds that ageing is the biggest predictor of dementia, which includes Alzeimer’s disease.
Pase, along with co-directors of Swinburne’s Centre for Psychopharmacology, professors Stough and Andrew Scholey, are focusing on the effects of a micronutrient combination designed by Professor Stough on cognitive performance. The supplements are a combination of French pine bark and the Indian herb Bacopa monnieri, which both have a history of remedial application. Records of the use of Bacopa monnieri (Brahmi in Sankrit) to enhance cognitive performance go back thousands of years, while French pine bark extract has a long history of use as a remedy for circulation disorders.
According to Pase, this trial presents an opportunity to not just measure the efficacy of each of the supplements against a placebo, but to investigate how they work. Funded by the Australian Research Council, this double-blind trial is one of the largest of its kind, with 600 healthy volunteers aged 60 to 75 expected to participate.
Arteries and the brain
The first step in the 12-month study is a baseline assessment of each participant, which will be used to compare subsequent data. The tests will include cognitive tasks assessing aspects of mental performance such as memory and reaction time, cardiovascular analysis including blood pressure and arterial stiffness, evaluation of mood and general health, tests for inflammation and oxidative stress, and genetic analysis.
The study of arterial health and brain performance is of particular interest to Pase. The recent winner of the Templeton Foundation Prize for his paper on the connection between arterial stiffening and cognition, as well as the Menzies Foundation Scholarship in Allied Health Science, which has not been awarded in this area before, Pase believes the supplements’ positive effects could be two-fold. He is researching whether improvements in cognition identified in pilot studies could be directly due to their effects on the brain, or the result of their actions on the cardiovascular system. The positive effect on cognition is just one of the possibilities which could explain the enduring use of both French pine bark and Bacopa monnieri.
The greediest organ
Co-director of Swinburne’s Centre for Human Pyschopharmacology, Professor Andrew Scholey explains further. “The brain is an extremely greedy organ. While it makes up only two per cent of the body’s weight, it consumes 20 to 30 per cent of the body’s energy.” Scholey argues that any intervention, which improves the delivery of glucose and oxygen to the brain, in this case, by improving the cardiovascular system, would therefore tend to positively affect brain performance.
Professor Scholey, with PhD student, Chris Neale, is also conducting a complementary study on the effects of the herb, Bacopa monnieri, on people over forty. This study will run over 12-week periods with a washout period in-between. “Reported effects of Bacopa on both memory and information processing seem to emerge between five and 12 weeks, which explains our shorter time frame,” he said. At the end of the 12 weeks, the study will use functional Magnetic Imaging or fMRI to measure the effects of Bacopa on cognitive function.
According to Professor Scholey, Swinburne’s Centre for Human Psychopharmacology is now the biggest group of its kind looking into natural medicines and their effects on human brain function.
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