Vinpocertine May Help Make You Sharper

Vinpocetine Is Good for Brain Cells
Plant extract may also help restore nerve function in multiple sclerosis

s flowers go, it's pleasant enough - not particularly showy, but with a simple allure. The plant in question is the common periwinkle (Vinca minor), a humble flower whose five petals spiral outward like the spokes of a child's pinwheel, in pink, purple, and violet hues. Simple, pleasant, understated. But that's on the outside. If you take the time to delve deeper, as chemists have, you will discover a rich array of plant compounds with potency that belies the flower's innocent appearance. One of these compounds in particular - vinpocetine - is enriched in the leaves of the plant and has properties that may be important for your health.

Vinpocetine was first isolated and characterized in Hungary about 25 years ago. Early studies with animals demonstrated that vinpocetine significantly increased cerebral blood flow, probably through vasodilation. Put simply, vinpocetine appeared to increase the diameter of blood vessels to the brain, thus increasing its blood supply - and hence the delivery of oxygen and glucose to the brain's cells. It was an exciting result, and raised the question of whether improved blood flow to the brain could improve cognition in humans. It turns out that vinpocetine does indeed have this effect in humans, as evidenced by the results of numerous clinical studies.

VINPOCETINE IS A COGNITIVE ENHANCER
One of the earlier human studies on vinpocetine, conducted in 1987, involved 42 patients with "chronic vascular senile cerebral dysfunction," which means that the patients were suffering from mild-to-moderate dementia caused by cerebrovascular insufficiency, or diminished blood flow to the brain.1 The patients were treated for one month with 10 mg of vinpocetine three times a day, followed by a two-month period of taking 5 mg three times a day. By a variety of measures, vinpocetine improved the general cognition of the patients over this three-month period. In conjunction with other studies, these data helped to establish that vinpocetine improves memory, learning, and speech and language skills in patients suffering from vascular dementia.

There is a veritable mountain of evidence supporting the role of vinpocetine in honing mental abilities. One European database lists over 500 scientific studies on this compound. Not only does vinpocetine enhance mental acuity, it also improves alertness and preparedness skills in cognitively impaired adults. On top of all that, vinpocetine is capable of improving both long-term and short-term memory skills in a range of patients.

VINPOCETINE IMPROVES BLOOD FLOW TO THE BRAIN
With respect to cognitive impairment, one researcher claims that "vinpocetine has the most clinical promise for the management of vascular insufficiencies involving the brain."2 This high praise is likely due to the simple fact that vinpocetine improves blood flow to the brain (see the sidebar). As a result, the brain's neurons are well nourished and can respond quickly and adeptly to cognitive challenges.

How Vinpocetine Works Its Magic
Strangely enough, vinpocetine is thought to act through the same biological mechanism as sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra®. Yet vinpocetine does not appear to have any effect on erectile dysfunction, and sildenafil has not been marketed for improving brain function. So, what's going on here?

Both vinpocetine and sildenafil are biochemically classified as phosphodiesterase inhibitors (PDEIs). Phosphodiesterases (PDEs) are enzymes that come in a variety of forms; at last count there were at least 11 different kinds.1 These protein molecules typically act on smooth muscle tissues, such as those in arterial walls, and prevent them from relaxing. By inhibiting the action of PDEs, PDEIs (such as vinpocetine) allow these tissues to relax, causing dilation of arteries and increasing blood flow to the organs in question.

What's interesting is that different PDEs are present in different tissues. For example, PDE-5 is most common in the penis. Because sildenafil specifically inhibits the action of PDE-5, it enhances blood flow to the penis, thereby facilitating erections.

Vinpocetine, on the other hand, is a PDE-1 inhibitor. PDE-1 is found in the brain, as well as in specific portions of the heart. In the presence of vinpocetine, the brain's arteries dilate and carry more blood, while the rest of the circulatory system is less affected.

Reference

  1. Truss MC, Stief CG, Uckert S, et al. Initial clinical experience with the selective phosphodiesterase-I isoenzyme inhibitor vinpocetine in the treatment of urge incontinence and low compliance bladder. World J Urol 2000;18:439-43.

Part of vinpocetine's beneficial activity may also be related to its ability to lower the viscosity of blood, i.e., to act as a "blood thinner." It does this by a number of mechanisms. For example, vinpocetine decreases blood-clot formation by lowering the ability of platelets and red blood cells to aggregate. In addition, it makes red blood cells more flexible, which makes them better able to squeeze through tiny capillaries. As a result, blood containing a little vinpocetine is more likely to continue on its journey through the circulatory system unimpeded, and this may partially explain vinpocetine's value in treating other medical conditions.

VINPOCETINE MAY PROTECT AGAINST ISCHEMIC DAMAGE
Not only does vinpocetine improve cognition, it may also play a role in protecting the brain's neurons from ischemic injury. Ischemia is a localized loss of blood flow, usually due to blockage of an artery. This condition is especially dangerous in the brain, as neurons are completely dependent on a continuous and ample supply of the oxygen and glucose delivered to them by the blood. Researchers in Portugal have suggested that vinpocetine has antioxidant properties that protect against neuronal damage caused by ischemic injury.3 Additional laboratory results also suggest that vinpocetine exhibits protective effects against brain ischemia and a protective effect on the brain as a whole, perhaps through its ability to lower the viscosity of blood.

Researchers in Russia undertook a pilot study (a small study to evaluate the desirability and feasibility of conducting a larger clinical trial) on the role of vinpocetine in ischemic stroke patients.4 The results, published recently in the European Journal of Neurology, demonstrated that patients treated with 10 mg of vinpocetine three times a day for three months after their stroke fared marginally better on a National Institute of Health standardized Stroke Scale than the control group. Although there were no statistically significant differences between the treatment and control groups in this or any other measure of the patients' condition, the authors concluded that a large-scale clinical trial should be conducted to investigate more fully the role of vinpocetine in minimizing neuronal damage due to ischemic stroke.

VINPOCETINE HELPS MS PATIENTS
Exciting research with vinpocetine has been conducted on patients with multiple sclerosis. MS is a disease in which neural signals from the brain to the target muscle groups are obstructed because sclerotic plaques form in multiple locations along the nerve fibers and interrupt the signal transmission. As a result, the muscles weaken, and MS patients are often tired. In the later stages of the disease, they are often unable to walk, and they lose other motor skills as well.

MS patients treated with phosphodiesterase inhibitors, or PDEIs (see the sidebar above for a description of phosphodiesterases and their inhibitors), exhibit a dramatic decrease in relapse rate.5 In a study published in the journal Multiple Sclerosis, 12 patients were treated with a cocktail of three different PDEIs, including 15 mg/day of vinpocetine, for an average of 499 days (1.4 years). The other two ingredients were the anti-Alzheimer's drug propentofylline and the antiasthma drug theophylline.


"Vinpocetine has the most clinical
promise for the management of
vascular insufficiencies
involving the brain."

Before the treatment, the patients averaged 3.1 relapses per year. During the treatment period, however, the incidence of relapses was much lower: only 0.92 per year. Seven of the 12 patients reported no relapses during the treatment period, three had a decreased incidence of relapses, and two had the same incidence as before. Since there were two other ingredients in the treatment formula, one can't say that vinpocetine alone was responsible for these results, but it likely played an important role in reducing the patients' relapse rates.

VINPOCETINE PROVIDES OTHER BENEFITS
The benefits of vinpocetine are not limited to the brain. Although vinpocetine does preferentially improve blood flow to the brain, it also increases blood flow to peripheral regions of the body. Two of the organs that benefit greatly from improved blood flow are the eyes and ears (still pretty close to the brain), and the microcirculation in these organs appears to be especially responsive to vinpocetine treatment.

By now you will probably agree that the lowly periwinkle is far from just another pretty face. The next time you walk by this pleasant flower in the garden, see it for what it is: a stunning biological specimen with the ability to restore cognitive powers and sensory perception.

References

  1. Balestreri R, Fontana L, Astengo F. A double-blind placebo controlled evaluation of the safety and efficacy of vinpocetine in the treatment of patients with chronic vascular senile cerebral dysfunction. J Am Geriatr Soc 1987;35:425-30.
  2. Kidd PM. A review of nutrients and botanicals in the integrative management of cognitive dysfunction. Altern Med Rev 1999;4:144-61.
  3. Santos MS, Duarte AI, Moreira PI, Oliveira CR. Synaptosomal response to oxidative stress: effect of vinpocetine. Free Radic Res 2000;32:57-66.
  4. Feigin VL, Doronin BM, Popova TF, Gribatcheva EV, Tchervov DV. Vinpocetine treatment in acute ischaemic stroke: a pilot single-blind randomized clinical trial. Eur J Neurol 2001; 8:81-5.
  5. Suzumura A, Nakamuro T, Tamaru T, Takayanagi T. Drop in relapse rate of MS by combination therapy of three different phosphodiesterase inhibitors. Multiple Sclerosis 2000;5:56-8.

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