|March 30, 2004
A substance derived from licorice may help boost brain function and slow the memory loss commonly associated with normal aging, researchers in Scotland report. But that doesn't mean you should rush out to buy Twizzlers just yet. The substance comes from black licorice, a sharp-tasting confection commonly sold in Europe; licorice candy in the United States is typically flavored with anise oil, not licorice, and red licorice isn't really licorice at all. What's more, the results were noted in just a few test subjects. It's still far too early to tell whether it truly boosts memory in healthy seniors who can't remember where they put the car keys -- or whether it provides any benefits for those with Alzheimer's disease or other, more serious forms of memory impairment.
The substance, called carbenoxolone, appeared to slow the kind of memory decline that commonly afflicts older adults who complain of "senior moments." It may, for example, help you to recall a word or name, or what movie you saw over the weekend.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh gave the compound to ten healthy men, aged 55 and up, who did not have any serious memory problems. They took it three times a day. Four weeks later, they scored 10 percent better on tests that assessed their ability to use and recall certain words than those who had not taken the substance. It also improved verbal memory scores about 10% in 12 older men with adult-onset diabetes who had already developed mild memory problems due to the disease.
The scientists believe a drug containing the compound could aid those who suffer from normal age-related memory decline. It appears to reduce levels of a hormone called cortisol, levels of which shoot up when someone is under a lot of stress and which may impair brain function. The researchers speculate that it may also be helpful in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, though it has not been tested in those with the illness.
As an herbal remedy, licorice is commonly used in Europe to treat ulcers, respiratory problems, and other ills. It may also reduce inflammation. However, it can also raise blood pressure to dangerously high levels, so it should not be used except under a doctor's supervision. Indeed, in the current study, in addition to licorice, participants also received hypertension medicines to keep their blood pressure levels down.
Like many drugs and alternative remedies that show early promise, much more testing needs to be done. The substance must be studied in large numbers of people to determine if it is truly effective as well as safe. In addition, none of the volunteers in the current study had Alzheimer's or other serious brain disorders.
If you are taking any herb or other remedy, be sure your doctor knows. Some can have dangerous side effects or interact with other medicines. In the meantime, the search for a cure continues.
Seckl JR, et al: Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Published online, March 30, 2004.
March 30, 2004