It’s coming towards the end of January and in theory Winter should be coming to a close, although it’s hard to know these days.
Looking at the garden the first snowdrops have appeared. Always a sign that things are beginning to grow. I love to see the snowdrops because they represent hope and belief in growth and new beginnings. They are a tiny piece of joy in a glum looking garden.
But did you know the humble snowdrop offers much more than cheering us up?
Snowdrop and Alzheimer’s Disease
The plant wasn’t studied much until the late ‘50’s when it was found that people in Bulgaria regularly used the plant for nerve pain and mental clarity – rubbing the bulb and leaves into their forehead.
The snowdrop contains a constituent – an alkaloid- called Galantamine. Galantamine was extracted from the plant and approved for use as a drug in Bulgaria in 1958. Galantamine, also called Nivalin was approved by the US FDA in 2001.
The main use of galantamine reflects what those in Bulgaria knew. It is used to help with mental clarity in mild forms of dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease where there is confusion. It doesn’t cure the disease, but helps with these symptoms.
Galantamine inhibits acetylcholinesterase which increases a neutotransmitter in the brain called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is important in the brain for nerve transmission, sending signals to other cells, including muscle and gland cells.
Poliomyelitis and myasthenia gravis
Because of its affect on nerve transmission, galantamine is being explored for other purposes where acetylcholine is also involved. Traditionally in Bulgaria, a tea from snowdrops was also given to children to help with poliomyelitis. And indeed there are some studies of the plant’s use with poliomyelitis and myasthenia gravis Studies are also underway in relation to nicotine withdrawal and autism. However, don’t try the tea yourself as the plant can cause nausea and vomiting.
Immunity and HIV
Finally, the snowdrop is showing promise in relation to the immune system. This time galantamine and a second constitutent, lectin are under the microscope. One study looked at the connection between the central nervous system and the immune system and was of the view that galantamine in addition to being anti-inflammatory may also regulate immunity. Building on this there are a number of studies looking at lectin’s potential with HIV. A number of studies have shown its potential to inhibit HIV infection.
Please however, do not rush out and dig up your snowdrops. Apart from removing the first signs of spring, the bulb can cause toxic reactions such as vomiting and nausea, so best to leave the little plant where it is.
Isn’t it interesting though that such a small little plant, packs such a punch and can give so much to us and our health?
 Raskind et al, 2000, Galantamine in AD A 6-month randomized, placebo-controlled trial with a 6-month extension, Neurology, First published June 27, 2000, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.54.12.2261
 Tariot et al, 2000, A 5-month, randomized, placebo-controlled trial of galantamine in AD, Neurology, First published June 27, 2000, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.54.12.2269