In the hunt for new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders, Swiss scientists are turning to an unlikely ally: pond scum.

They’re not dredging up algae and feeding it to lab mice. At least, not yet.

So far, the scientists have just done lab tests on a compound made by cyanobacteria — commonly called “blue-green algae” — and they like what they’ve seen. Cyanobacteria are not true algae, but bacterial organisms which live in the water and have photosynthetic properties like plants.

Paul Becher of the University of Zurich and colleagues report the findings in the Journal of Natural Products.

Don’t get the wrong idea from the journal’s name. This study isn’t about a product that’s on the market. It could be years before anyone knows if this early research will actually help anyone facing Alzheimer’s.

Still, pond scum’s image is looking up — for the moment, anyway.

New Thinking About Alzheimer's Treatment

Algae Ingredient

Talk about humble beginnings. The compound studied by Becher’s team originally came from cyanobacteria in a wastewater lagoon. It was then frozen, dried, and purified.

Next, the scientists used lasers and chemicals to analyze the compound, which is called nostocarboline.

Then came the big test. The researchers exposed nostocarboline to a type of enzyme called cholinesterase. The algae compound thwarted cholinesterase.

Here’s why that’s a big deal. Cholinesterase breaks down a brain chemical called acetylcholine. People with Alzheimer’s disease have low levels of acetylcholine.

Working against the action of cholinesterase can help with acetylcholine levels. Some current Alzheimer’s drugs (such as Aricept, Exelon, and Razadyne) target cholinesterase in a similar fashion. The researchers compared the strength of cholinesterase-inhibiting activity of nostocarboline with that of Razadyne and found it to be similar.

Nostocarboline might one day lead to new drugs that counter brain diseases, the researchers write.

Statins Fight Alzheimer's Disease

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Becher, P. Journal of Natural Products, Dec. 26, 2005; vol 68: pp 1793-1795. News release, American Chemical Society. Columbia University Press Encyclopedia