What is Huperzine a?

Douglas Bonderud

Huperzine A is a nootropoic chemical that is used to improve memory and combat Alzheimer's Disease. The substance comes from the huperzia serrata plant, which is a type of low-lying moss commonly found throughout Asia. This naturally-occurring substance is an alkaloid, which means that its nitrogen atoms have a basic potentiometric hydrogen ion concentration (pH).

Insomnia is a possible side effect of Huperzine A.
Insomnia is a possible side effect of Huperzine A.

This plant was first used in Chinese herbal medicine to treat fevers and blood disorders. It has been used as such an alternative treatment for many years, but it was not until 1948 that the active compound, huperzine A, was isolated. In both China and the United States, this substance is sold as an over-the-counter supplement for memory enhancement and Alzheimer's improvement.

Consuming niacin-rich foods such as peanuts may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's.
Consuming niacin-rich foods such as peanuts may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's.

Almost all medical trials of huperzine A have been carried out in China, but researchers in the United States have recently begun to take an interest in it. The National Institute on Aging (NIA), a U.S. agency, is conducting a multi-stage study to determine how effective the substance is in enhancing cognitive function. Studies done in China in 1991 and 1995 — both using placebos and double-blind, randomized methods — found that huperzine A was effective in treating both Alzheimer's and other memory-degenerating conditions. Subsequent Chinese studies showed less promising effects, but a 2008 review of clinical trials conducted in that country found that, overall, huperzine A does have some beneficial effects.

Patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease may be prone to wandering away from home.
Patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease may be prone to wandering away from home.

One of the main chemical functions of huperzine A is as an acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitor. Acetylcholinesterase is a brain enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh), which is responsible for a large amount of synaptic functioning and neuronal arousal in the central nervous system (CNS). One molecule of AChE is able to degrade the function of approximately 25,000 acetylcholine molecules, making it extremely potent. Inhibitors of this enzyme were often used as nerve gas agents, as an excess of acetylcholine in the body will lead to muscle paralysis and death by asphyxiation.

Individuals with Alzheimer's often have a lack of acetylcholine as well as depressed cognitive functioning. This is because acetylcholine plays a role in neuronal stimulation, memory, and learning, in addition to simple arousal functions. Low levels of AChE can free up acetylcholine and allow more neuron activity.

Huperzine is an extremely effective AChE inhibitor, and only 100 to 200 micrograms (mg) need to be ingested per day for it to be effective. In healthy individuals, huperzine A typically produces mild feelings of alertness. Possible, but rare, side effects of this drug include skin hives, diarrhea, and insomnia.

Chinese herbalists and others use huperzine A to reduce fever.
Chinese herbalists and others use huperzine A to reduce fever.

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Discussion Comments

ceilingcat

@Azuza - I'm sure you would probably have to take a ton of huperzine A for it to actually kill you. I'm guess if that was one of the possible side effects found in the studies this compound wouldn't even be available to the general public.

According to the article it's been used in Chinese medicine for years. If it's been used safely for that long, I'm sure it's fine.

Azuza

It sounds like huperzine A could actually be a little bit dangerous for people without Alzheimers to take. If an excess of ACh can causes paralysis, and huperzine A inhibits the production of the enzyme that breaks it down, it sounds like a person could end up with high levels of ACh.

As the article said, high levels of ACh can kill you! I think this drug should probably be available by prescription only.

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