Q: Dear Dr. Mao,
How does huperzine A work when it is taken for Alzheimer’s disease?
A: Huperzine A inhibits the enzyme acetylcholinesterase (uh-SEE-tul-co-lin-ES-ter-ase). This enzyme breaks down acetylcholine, which seems to play an important role in mental function. When the enzyme that breaks it down is inhibited, acetylcholine levels in the brain tend to rise. Drugs that inhibit acetylcholinesterase (such as tacrine and donepezil) seem to improve memory and mental functioning in people with Alzheimer’s and other severe conditions. The research on huperzine A indicates that it works in much the same way.
The chemical action of huperzine A is very precise and specific. It “fits” into a niche on the enzyme where acetylcholine is supposed to attach. Because huperzine A is in the way, the enzyme can’t grab and destroy acetylcholine. This mechanism has been demonstrated by considerable scientific work, including sophisticated computer modeling of the shape of the molecule.
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