Pseudo Jellyfish

So…you are a man or woman in the later stages of life―the golden years, some might say. Your doctor’s appointment is an hour away, but you cannot find your car keys.  You go into panic mode and frantically search every nook and cranny without success.  Finally, you recall coming home last night with a sack of groceries in each arm, fumbling to unlock the front door. You open the door, and “presto,” the elusive keys appear and a wave of relief washes over you. So you go to the doctor, get good news, return home, retire to the Lazy Boy, and turn on the television. The first thing that appears is an ad for Prevagen. You are greeted with the statement: “Your brain changes as you get older,” followed by a snapshot of a dull-firing  brain that becomes visually supercharged and bright―suggestively,  after use of the advertised product―and immediately you think, “Wow, this is a cure for forgetting where I left my keys!”

Not so fast.

Wisconsin-based Quincy Bioscience is the manufacturer and marketer of Prevagen. The capsules, which sell anywhere between $40 and $90 for a bottle,  contain a protein called apoaequorin, which in its natural state is found in a species of luminous jellyfish. However, apoaequorin used in the product is manufactured artificially.

The claim:  Quincy touts Prevagen as a “new brain health supplement” that functions unlike other brain or memory supplements. Prevagen provides a healthier brain, a sharper mind and clearer thinking. Prevagen’s active ingredient is a new use for a well-known calcium-binding protein called “apoaequorin” which is found in a certain species of jellyfish. Prevagen® binds to calcium in cells and helps reduce damage to cells that occurs in aging due to our body’s decline in production of calcium-binding proteins. Calcium serves a vital function of cellular communication but excess calcium can disrupt the balance and damage cells. Prevagen® helps to restore balance and improve memory problems that occur in aging.

Quincy Bioscience is running a national advertising campaign for Prevagen that has saturated broadcast and cable networks with a shrewd marketing strategy. Those brighter flashing neurons energized by supercharged synapses, as depicted in the Prevagen infomercials, put one in mind of other successful marketing campaigns targeted at certain age and demographic groups.  The ones that immediately come to mind are the masculine icon “Marlboro Man,” and the cartoonish “Joe Camel,” which was far more successful at marketing Camel cigarettes to children than to adults.  Indeed, Prevagen is not harmful to health like tobacco products, but neither is it helpful.

The counter-claim: In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to Quincy, saying it was making medical claims for a product that had not gone through the formal drug approval process. In January 2017, the Federal Trade Commission and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman charged Quincy Bioscience with making false and unsubstantiated claims that the Prevagen product improves memory, provides cognitive benefits, and is clinically shown to work. The FTC claimed that Quincy tried, but failed to show it could help people and cited the Madison Memory Study, which failed to show a statistically significant improvement in a controlled treatment group.  The most damaging blow, however, was delivered in the lawsuit filed by New York State. Therein, Eric Schneiderman alleged: “Defendants, however, do not have studies showing that orally-administered apoaequorin can cross the human blood brain barrier and therefore do not have evidence that apoaequorin enters the human brain.” Thus, if the product does not even enter the treatment zone, it is hard to imagine relief of any kind, let alone the amazing results claimed by Quincy.

Nevertheless, there are a substantial number of claims by users that Prevagen actually works. These claims, as a matter of probabilistic analysis, are likely attributable to the “placebo phenomenon,” which is altogether a separate branch of research into healing arts.  Cara Feinberg reported in the January-February 2013 issue of Harvard Magazine:

…Researchers have found that placebo treatments—interventions with no active drug ingredients—can stimulate real physiological responses, from changes in heart rate and blood pressure to chemical activity in the brain, in cases involving pain, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and even some symptoms of Parkinson’s.

There is no magic bullet in the world of medicine that will cure or prevent Alzheimer’s, but there are some drugs available to treat cognitive symptoms of the disease. Thus, if one is in the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s, the best advice is a trip to the doctor, followed by mental stimulation, physical exercise and a healthy diet. Indeed, if there were a medicine-based cure or prevention, today’s researchers will tell you that they would be first in line.

Full-blown Alzheimer’s is a devastating and terminal illness that often visits a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde personality disorder on even the meekest of victims. The false hope which leads to the use of Prevagen in the pre-stages of Alzheimer’s or other dementias should infuriate those loved ones who have been forced to endure the fallout from this heart-wrenching anomaly.

There is a legitimate alternative to ingesting Prevagen, and it is free. Go to your local library and check out a copy of Dr. Gary Small’s 2 Weeks To A Younger Brain ©2015 Humanix Books (The book can be purchased for a nominal fee through Amazon, or at Barnes and Noble). Dr. Small is a professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior.  He translates the latest brain science into practical strategies and exercises that yield quick and long-lasting benefits for people worried about memory retention.

At the end of it all, you can buy and use the very expensive Prevagen product, or, you can put an equal amount of money in a pile and burn it. Either way, the impact on your memory health will be the same.

Truman Goodspeed, January 2018

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