A smart pill for seniors?

From Washington, D.C., at the Experimental Biology 2007 Conference

Many people approaching retirement age find that memories fade and quick-wittedness flags. Scientists at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell have formulated what they call a “smart pill” to optimize brain health in such people. In pilot trials, its combination of dietary supplements boosted performance on simple mental tests by middle-aged and elderly adults.

Throughout life, the brain and other tissues are assaulted by biologically damaging oxidative chemical reactions triggered by pollutants, disease, and more. Although the body makes protective antioxidants, its capacity to do so wanes with age.

Thomas Shea and his colleagues recruited 100 healthy men and women for their smart-pill trial. Half received a placebo. The rest got the patent-pending supplement combination, which included the antioxidant vitamins folic acid, B12, and vitamin E. The pills also contained a building block for glutathione, an antioxidant made by the body; acetyl-L-carnitine; and S-adenosyl methionine. The dose of each ingredient was typical of that in existing off-the-shelf products, Shea says.

Prior to the trial and then at 3-month intervals, participants performed a pair of connect-the-dots tests that indicated their decision-processing speeds.

Test times for those getting the smart pill “improved by an average of 10 percent in 3 months, and 20 percent in 6 months,” Shea told Science News. People given the sham pills showed no improvements.

Such supplements might help aging adults stay sharp and fight the ravages of oxidants, Shea concludes.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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