The Wall Street Journal
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Vinpocetine

n a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal,1 Marilyn Chase, the columnist of "Health Journal," took up the gauntlet against the plant extract vinpocetine. While the WSJ editorial staff is consistently and acerbically critical of the FDA, its health columnist is not. To the contrary, she appears to believe that the world would be a better place if there were only heavier doses of regulation than we now have. Nevertheless, her assault on vinpocetine was insipid and limp.

According to Chase, promoters are billing vinpocetine as the next big thing, which is especially tragic, so she says, because of the scarcity of data on the botanical substance. Actually, there are more than 1000 articles in the combined biomedical databases, and that's just the tip of the research literature. Because vinpocetine has been thought of as a brandable (and use patentable) product outside the U.S., many of the larger studies have never been formally released. These use patents have now expired in several countries and more of that information is coming forth.

Our "vigilant" reporter cites as evidence only five studies involving 300 subjects to prove her point. These studies tested for memory enhancement, cognitive performance, Alzheimer's disease benefits, memory recovery, and short term memory. Yet only one of the five studies, which was not double-blind but open-label - and therefore highly susceptible to scientific uncertainty - reported no benefit for vinpocetine. It had only 15 subjects. The other four studies were all quite positive, as have been hundreds of others. Still, Chase bemoaned current laws that allow "remedies" to bid for the "consumer's faith and dollars these days" with so little data behind the claims.

Has it ever occurred to Chase that she could investigate her concerns first-hand by searching The National Library of Medicine's Medline biomedical database, now available free to the public (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/PubMed/index.html)? Instead, Chase relies on so-called experts whose credentials seem very much digressive; eg, someone described as a psychiatrist is quoted as stating that vinpocetine should absolutely not be sold over the counter. Yet the safety data on vinpocetine is impeccable, going back nearly 30 years. Evaluating the entirety of her rant, Ms. Chase's principal thrust is an "appeal to authority" which, as the ancient Greeks knew, doesn't prove anything. It's a fallacious method of argument.

Had she looked in PubMed she would have found over 600 studies (over a hundred of which are double-blind placebo controlled) involving tens of thousands of subjects. Many of these studies are long-range, going back to the early 1970s or even before, and represent research done in Japan as well as Europe and the U.S. What Ms. Chase may not realize is that many of the FDA approved drugs, that people have faith in and gladly spend their dollars on, have far less research behind them. And, as a significant number of major drug recalls attest, the FDA approval process guarantees nothing and is often insufficiently far-ranging, poorly reviewed, and politically tainted or worse. Readers of the WSJ, beware! Your health is not served by poorly supported opinions or second-hand knowledge!

References

  1. Chase M. New supplement aims to boost memory but proof is scanty. The Wall Street Journal. July 13, 1998;pp. B1.

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