Vinpocetine - the ultimate neuroprotector By Karen Sadowsky Kaufman, MS
Vinpocetine is synthesized from vincamine- an extract of the periwinkle plant, (also known as the Vinca minor). Vinpocetine is one of the most important Nootropics in our current armamentarium and has been used safely in parts of Europe and Japan since the 1970’s.
Best known for its favorable effect on cerebral blood flow, in order to fully appreciate the benefits of Vinpocetine, it is important to understand something about how the brain functions.
The brain is the most complex and elegant structure in the human body. It regulates virtually every metabolic function required for life. On average, it weighs a mere 3 lbs., but contains several thousand miles of interconnected nerve cells which control every movement, thought, sensation and emotion that define human experience. Within the brain and spinal cord, there are ten thousand distinct varieties of neurons, trillions of supportive cells, even more synaptic connections, a hundred characterized neurotransmitters, miles of minute blood vessels, axons of various lengths, all of which all mysteriously work together to maintain life.
Yet while the brain accounts for only 2% of the body’s weight, it consumes 20% of the body’s available energy in the form of glucose and oxygen. Furthermore, the brain relies (in a non fasting state) exclusively on glucose, whilst other cells and organs in the body are able to burn fat or glucose to survive. For example, the liver and skeletal muscles are able to keep a large reserve of glycogen which can be converted to glucose and released into circulation in times of increased energy requirements, but neurons cannot survive much longer than a minute or two without glucose. Thus the brain relies on an uninterrupted blood supply to avoid injury and cell death. Naturally, without a fully functioning brain, the quality of life becomes deeply compromised.
Many cells in the body reproduce throughout life and are therefore able to repair themselves after injury, only a few such as heart muscle cells and skeletal muscle cells do not have the ability to reproduce. Yet, it takes the brain a mere 2-years after birth to complete its development and acquire all the neurons and inter-connections necessary for life. Until very recently, it was thought the neurons of the brain also lacked the ability to reproduce, seemingly a fatal flaw in design. After all, why would the organ most central to life lacks the ability to regenerate its crucial components? Well, that may not be entirely true. Experimental research establishes that adult stem cells can transform into brain cells in people . There is also recent evidence that neurons can be regenerated from endogenous cells after injury to the brain . Of course, we cannot expect these findings to go from bench to bedside anytime soon, so currently the best policy is still to support our brains and its neurons as if they have no ability to regenerate.
Ten years ago, scientists believed a certain amount of cognitive decline was an inevitable consequence of aging- this is no longer the case. The same lifestyle factors that affect overall health can also protect the brain. By preventing diabetes, coronary artery disease (CAD), cerebrovascular disease, (CVD) and hypertension; one can realistically enter their 90’s with cognitive functions intact. Of course, one cannot control for conditions that seem to arbitrarily strike different people: brain cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, stroke, head injury or other traumas. But given the ever increasing advancements in neurobiology and nanotechnology, the reasons for protecting brain function are more compelling than ever.
As stated above, the brain relies literally minute-to-minute on the glucose and oxygen that is supplied by the blood. Glucose and oxygen are converted to energy (ATP), so that the neurons have the power to conduct their simultaneous and countless functions. It is estimated that the brain itself utilizes 50% of the total glucose metabolized in the body. This is why an insulin dependent diabetic falls quickly into a coma after injecting too much insulin. Blood glucose drops precipitously, so the brain loses its key source of energy. ATP is used by the neurons to repair cell components i.e. cell membranes, microtubules, mitochondria etc. ATP is also used to produce all neurotransmitters and ensure those neurotransmitters arrive at the correct receptors. Most importantly, the everyday cell-to-cell communication is conducted by electrical impulses, which are discharged through the operation of sodium-potassium pumps.
In short, maintaining an uninterrupted blood supply to the brain is the best way to prevent neuronal injury or cell death.
The ability of Vinpocetine to ensure cerebral blood flow means that this Nootropic has beneficial effects on the memory, particularly memory loss that may be related to vascular insufficiency. There is also evidence that Vinpocetine ameliorates epileptic seizures. It has also been shown to have favorable effects on hearing and vision. Other studies have suggested it may be beneficial in alleviating depression and menopausal symptoms.
Research has yet to elucidate all the ways in which Vinpocetine exerts its beneficial effects, but the science thus far, is intriguing. Importantly, its history of safety is impressive.
Many Vinpocetine studies have focused on its potential ability to enhance brain function. The best studied property of Vinpocetine is its ability to improve and restore cerebral blood flow in patients who have suffered a stroke or people who have had multiple cerebral infarcts.
An investigation was recently published that used neuro-imaging to see how the administration of Vinpocetine might effect cerebral blood flow in patients who experience chronic ischemic stroke . This recent report confirmed earlier reports that Vinpocetine has the ability to restore regional cerebral blood flow. In this particular study, the Vinpocetine was given intravenously for 14 days.
Another study published in September of 2005, used Doppler imaging and neuropsychological testing to evaluate Vinpocetine against a placebo in multi-infarct patients . It was a small study, but it showed that the Vinpocetine treated group had no worsening of one of the markers on the neuropsychological test, whereas the placebo group did worsen. In addition, positive changes in blood flow were detected by the Doppler in the Vinpocetine treated group versus the placebo group.
Scientists have shown in laboratory animals that Vinpocetine is able to decrease the loss of neurons due to decreased blood flow.
In 3-studies of older adults with memory problems associated with poor brain circulation or dementia related disease, Vinpocetine treated subjects experienced significantly more improvement on global cognitive tests reflecting improved attention, concentration and memory compared to those taking the placebo . Some researchers speculate that taking Vinpocetine to prevent neuronal injury from subclinical cerebrovascular disease, or diseases that increase oxidative stress is a good idea .
In another study, the efficacy and tolerance of oral Vinpocetine was investigated in ambulatory patients suffering from mild to moderate organic psychosyndromes, including primary dementia. There were no clinically relevant side-effects reported. The frequency of adverse events was the same for the Vinpocetine group and the placebo group. It was a multi-center trial in which 203 patients were randomized to receive 10 mgs or 20 mgs of Vinpocetine, or a placebo three times per day. Significant improvements were found in both groups that received Vinpocetine in “Global Improvement” and cognitive performance versus the placebo group. Both dosages of Vinpocetine were superior to placebo in ratings of ‘severity of illness’ .
Studies in an animal model of epilepsy have demonstrated Vinpocetine’s anti-convulsant properties . Scientists speculate Vinpocetine may be an alternative treatment for epilepsy which apparently works through the blockade of sodium channels .
Since there is so much evidence the Vinpocetine improves cerebral blood flow, it is rational to speculate that Vinpocetine would also be beneficial for hearing and vision. Published research as well as anecdotal reports suggest that Vinpocetine can be very beneficial for one’s hearing, particularly trauma induced tinnitus . There is little published data about Vinpocetine’s beneficial effects on vision, but a study from 1992 does support the effectiveness of Vinpocetine in ophthalmic issues. After administration of Vinpocetine, a 77.5% improvement was seen in distance vision and 42.5% in near vision .
One pleasantly surprising item popped up in my research. It seems Vinpocetine is beneficial in relieving menopausal symptoms. The study included 91 women experiencing early menopause. There was a control group, a group of women with normal cholesterol and a group of women with high cholesterol. Vinpocetine’s administration resulted in the reduction of the indexes of atherogenic risk in the group of women with high cholesterol. In addition, both groups that received Vinpocetine reported; ‘significant amelioration of climacteric symptoms’ .
Mechanism of action
Initial research suggests Vinpocetine has five main mechanisms of action.
Vinpocetine selectively enhances brain circulation and the brain’s use of oxygen without significantly altering systemic circulation.
Vinpocetine also increase the brain’s tolerance of hypoxia (oxygen deficiency) and ischemia (obstructed blood flow).
Furthermore, Vinpocetine acts as an anticonvulsant and inhibits the enzyme phophodiesterase (PDE)-1, which breaks down adenosine monophosphate, (an important nucleotide the body made from ATP).
The latest evidence suggests that Vinpocetine has the ability to act as sodium channel blocker, (as mentioned above).
But perhaps most importantly, Vinpocetine has anticoagulant properties and is able to stop blood cells from sticking together . Given that recent evidence points to blood viscosity being the most important marker for a heart attack (in other words, the thicker one’s blood- the more likelihood of an infarction), we may well see Vinpocetine also being clinical proven to be efficacious for heart disease too.
When the data is viewed in its entirety, it is evident that Vinpocetine has almost 30 years of safety and efficacy. No one wants to think they will suffer a stroke, or any sort of brain trauma. But Vinpocetine provides extremely inexpensive insurance in the event that the worst should happen. Plus, there is ample evidence to suggest Vinpocetine improves normal brain function, and that is always a good thing!
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