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Released March 18, 2004

By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG -- First diagnosed in 1906, Alzheimer's disease is a relative newcomer to mankind's list of maladies. By contrast, the herbal extract Ginkgo biloba has been used for its healing properties for more than 4,000 years.

According to findings in an ongoing study at The University of Southern Mississippi, it seems the ancient remedy could be an old answer to a new disease.

In laboratory tests, Ginkgo biloba has been shown to increase circulation in the brain and to reduce the plaque buildup that leads to Alzheimer's, said chief researcher Dr. Yuan Luo, assistant professor of biology at Southern Miss.

Alzheimer's is a complex, mysterious brain disorder that results in the gradual loss of brain cells. It affects an estimated 4.5 million Americans.

"A lot of mainstream scientists in the past have not wanted to touch alternative medicine research because of philosophical differences," said Luo, who will speak about the link between Alzheimer's and Ginkgo biloba March 27 at the "World's Largest Brain" balloon event at Southern Miss' Hattiesburg campus.

"But more work must be done in this area because many Americans want to know what they can do to prevent Alzheimer's. For this reason, the National Institute of Health is funding our research."

As society ages and life span increases, more people are turning to nontraditional medicines and herbal remedies to fight the ravages of time, Luo said. At the forefront of that popularity is the Ginkgo extract. Extracted from the fan-shaped leaves of the hardy Ginkgo tree, the herbal remedy has been used medicinally for thousands of years.

"Ginkgo biloba is sometimes called a 'living fossil.' It was the first tree to grow back after the atomic bomb was dropped in Japan, and it grew back without any mutations," said Julie Smith, a Southern Miss doctoral student working on the project.

Although the evidence of Ginkgo biloba's pharmaceutical value is slowly emerging in the Unites States, in Europe it has been sold both over-the-counter and by prescription for years. In Germany, where many of the best brands of commercial Gingko biloba extract are manufactured, the herb is one of the most commonly prescribed medicines by doctors.

Originally from China, where she developed an interest in Eastern medicine early in her career, Luo came to the United States to study Western medicine - chiefly the physiology and chemistry of the brain. A neuroscientist who did her postdoctoral work at M.I.T. and Harvard Medical School, Luo says she has "always wanted to bridge the gap between modern neuroscience and alternative medicines."

"My undergraduate thesis in China was about acupuncture performed on dogs. When I saw that endorphins were released in dogs that received acupuncture, I began to see Eastern medicine really works. I wanted to take that further and study other forms of traditional Chinese medicine," Luo said.

Although a vaccine for Alzheimer's is in the works, currently there is no cure for the degenerative disease, which can last from three to 20 years. Memory and thinking skills are damaged first, and eventually, cells in other regions of the brain are destroyed, eventually leading to death.

Although no one knows for sure what causes Alzheimer's, studies indicate the greatest risk for developing Alzheimer's is simply getting older. Smith says as many as 10 percent of all people 65 and older have the disease, and as many as 50 percent of all people 85 and older are at risk of developing it. Family history and head injuries are also known risks.

Luo said a history of previous strokes and lack of higher education are also indicators of one's susceptibility.

"Until we find a cure, the best thing to do is to slow down the accumulation of cellular damage associated with aging, which can possibly delay the onset of the disease," Smith said. You can do that by taking antioxidants like vitamins C and E, which fight the free radicals that attack healthy cells, she said. Getting exercise, quitting smoking and participating in intellectually stimulating activities are also ways you can minimize the risks of getting Alzheimer's.

Ginkgo biloba's recuperative traits do not stop at the brain. In addition to helping restore memory in patients with mild to moderate cases of Alzheimer's, it also helps reduce stress, Smith said. "It has been shown that Gingko works better for people who are older and more stressed than it does for younger, less stressed people."

For more information, contact Luo or Smith at (601) 266-5417.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM