The bittersweet promise of the lemon balm
In the garden of a care home in Manchester, the leaves of the lemon balm delicately perfume the warm summer air. Inside, there lives an elderly Alzheimer’s sufferer – let’s call him Jim. Jim’s initial memory loss and confusion were difficult enough for him and for his family. But the aggressive outbursts combined with agitation and anxiety, which came later, were extremely distressing to relatives, carers and residents alike. Jim had always been such a gentle, polite man.
Since the new essential-oil treatments started three months ago, however, he seems calmer and less agitated – more like the person he used to be.
The treatments are part of a clinical trial, sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Society and involving Kew in partnership with five leading UK universities. After preliminary pharmacology studies and blood tests on healthy volunteers, the scientists created a lotion, to be applied to the skin, from the oil of Melissa officinalis, more commonly known as ‘lemon balm’ – the exact same plant that is growing in the care home garden. Jim and 113 other patients in three UK cities were then enlisted to investigate the effects, with quality control provided by Kew. And in three months, the study has reported a marked ‘improvement in quality of life’.
But now, the funding has run out. The promise of the lemon balm remains – as yet – unfulfilled. Future studies to investigate the beneficial effects of Melissa and other plant products in alleviating dementia symptoms will depend on the generosity of donors.
In the meantime, there are only four drugs licensed in the UK specifically for the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. One is galantamine, originally derived from the common snowdrop, while another is derived from an ancient African plant used traditionally as a poison and in rituals. And, according to the latest estimates there will be one million sufferers of Alzheimer’s by the year 2021.
Through the Breathing Planet Campaign important medical research like this can continue.
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