Midweek Review
Memory enhancing herbs: proven and patented, but not pirated

by Jagath Gunawardena.

There are some who have the unfortunate habit of looking down upon our indigeneous knowledge. Cures and medicines, especially those home remedies, that are prepared and used without the help of an indegenous medicinal practitioner. Some of the indegenous remedies are found in food plants and commonly found plants and can be eaten as vegetables to get the desired effect. Therefore, those who look down upon these not only keep themselves away from the benefits that can be obtained from these plants, but sometimes discourage others as well. There are rare instances where the incorrect use of a medicinal plant from being used.

There are a number of plants, whose consumption is believed to enhance memory and intelligence. These were usually given to children as part of their food. The commonest among these were the well known vegetables with this property are brinjal or vambatu (solanum melongena), egg plant or talenabatu (sindicum) and heen gotukola (centella asiatica). Another plant whose rhizomes were used in very small quantities for the some purpose was wada kaha or sweet flag (acorus calamus). This plant has stout thizomes, long thin leaves and grows in marshy habitats. The whole plant is arometic and is used in many other preperations as well. However, the memory enhancing properties of wada kaha had being the subject of ridicule since 1958. This was because there had been a nation that a person drinking a concoction of this plant during the solar exlipse whould get a greatly improved powers of memory and intelligence. Those believing this had drunk large amounts during the eclipse and suffered adverse effects such as vomiting. This is clearly a case of abuse or misuse but the memory enhancing properties of wada kaha had been a subject of ridicule from this incident. Now, more than four decades later, wada kaha had redeemed its previous reputation as a memory enhancer due to research by Indian scientists.

This research had resulted in a patent registered at the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) under number WO 0013696 and titled as "Composition for improving mental capabilities in mammals". The investors are Maharaj Krishan Pandita and Govind Prasad Dubey, both residing in India. They have filed an international patent application under the Patent Co-operation Treaty numbered PCT/IN 99/00036 from India which has 99 designated states. These include Sri Lanka. The new invention is protected under 26 claims.

The four plants that comprise the composition are gotu kola (centella asiatica), lunuwila (bacopa monneiri), wada kaha (acorus calamus), duhudu or doodu (celestrus paniculatus). The first three are well known as memory enhancing plants in Sri Lanka, as well as good for various other ailments. In India, the name Brahmi is used to both lunuwila and gotukola and they consider both to have the same medicinal properties and as complimentary to each other. According to the patent, all these four plants are known for their memory enhancement properties in India. Therefore, it can be seen that, at least in three of these, this knowledge is common to both India and Sri Lanka. It is not known whether this type of indigenous knowledge evolved independently or shared between the practitioners in neighbouring countries.

The patent describes several disadvantages of using the plant preparations seperately and problems in use. One is that different plants have different types of activities. For example wada kaha increases protein synthesis thereby enhancing the capabilities of the neurons to increase the capacity of the retention of information and their recall. Another is that herbs contain different amounts of active ingredients which make the administering of a specific dose impossible. The other is the presence of undesirable substances that could make the preparation to be unpalatable (for example, bitter) or even be potentially harmful (for example, the presence of beta - asarone, a carcinogen). They state that no proper studies have been done to assess the function of individual herbs, nor had done any research on the combination of the four herbs in influencing overall mental performance. It is this that had been done by them and presented as an invention that ought to be protected by the patent.

The objectives of the inventors, according to the patent, are twofold. One is to make a very highly patent composition that can improve overall mental performance which they further specify as long term and short term memory, increasing the attention span, retention of facts and their recall, correction of speech defects, decresing the exitability and emotional fluctuations (Exitability and fluctuations are said to lower memory). Their second objective is to decrease the amount of undesirable substances, especially beta - aserone thus making the preperation palatable, safer and free from any side effects.

The main component in all the different combinations of the preparation is the Brahmi herb, which mean either lunuwila or gotukola or a combination of both, together with either the extract from the rhizomes of wada kaha or the oil of duhudu or a combination of both these ingredients. Therefore, or composition could contain extracts of two, three or all four of these herbs. They have also recommended various additives to prepare different forms of the compound. These additives could be stabilizers, anti-caking agents, flavours, sweetners, colourings or thickening agents. The composition can be given as a powder, liquid, syrup, paste, tablet or capsule. The different extracts and amounts in the different types of compositions are meant to address particular situations and aspects in order to bring about an overall desired effect.

The patent also describes different extraction methods in order to obtain the maximum amounts of active ingredients and to minimize losses in extraction. They also give methods to reduce the amounts of undesirable substances from the composition. The amounts of each herb that has to be present to give the optimum benefits are provided in detail. For instance, it says that gotukola (centella asiatica) is responsible for improving short-term and long-term memory and the concentration abilities. The same function is provided by lunuwila (bacopa monneiri). The two are known to be complimentory to each other but tests carried out by the inventors have proven that better results could be obtained if both are present in the same composition.

The patent has described the optimum doses for particular herbal extracts. It says that each 10 milliliters of the composition should optimumly have 150-300 milligrammes of B. monneiri extract. If it is less than 150 mg, then the desired effect is not produced. It does not produce any enhanced effect when there is more than 300 mg and when it exceeds 2000 mg could even lead to gastric irritation. The preferred dosage of centella asiatica in a composition should be within the range of 25-200 mg for every 10 milliliters. The effective dosage for acorus calamus extracts is between 75-25 mg and that of celestrus paniculatus oil is between 0.02-0.2 milliliters per 10 ml.

The patent gives many compositions containing various amounts of different ingredients to produce desired effects in children, adults and mentally deficient people and the effective dosages for different categories. The patent mentions only the extracts in general and no active ingredient in specific terms. The presence of an active ingredient or more has been determined by the producing of a desired outcome. This patent covers the invention under 26 claims. They mainly seek protection to the different types of compositions and their preparation. Twelve different compositions are covered by claims (numbers 2,4,5,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22 and 23). They have only claimed protection for these compositions and not to the memory enhancing capacity of any single herbs. This has left the traditional knowledge base free for others to work on.

This patent is important to be considered for several reasons. The first and foremost is that traditional wisdom can be gainfully used to produce very important value-added products. Clearly associated with it the need to treat traditional knowledge with respect and not in a disdainful way. The inventors are praiseworthy, not only for proving the real worth of the plants and making an important invention, but especially for acting without greed. That is they have refrained from claiming any monopolies that would have stifled research or have claimed the traditional wisdom as their invention. This and the patent on the herbal preparation to cure diabetes (WO 0172316 by Victor Hettigoda) are both examples how our traditional cures can be worked on,improved and patented without infringing the rights of others or resorting to boi-piracy.