Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a chronic, progressive, and untreatable neurodegenerative disorder characterized by the accumulation of amyloid β (Aβ) in the brain. Currently, clinically prescribed medicines for AD yield only slight improvements in symptoms or delays in disease progression [1
]. Accordingly, several strategies aimed at reducing Aβ production have long been investigated in basic research and clinical trials centered around the radical development of therapeutic drugs for AD. However, these approaches have failed to improve cognitive function in phase 2 and 3 trials [2
], even when supported by large pharmaceutical companies, and have been withdrawn. Possibly, these approaches may fail because Aβ accumulation in the brain starts approximately 30 years before the onset of symptoms, and has already plateaued once signs of AD become apparent [3
We hypothesized that functional enhancement of the brain instead requires the reinforcement of neuronal networks, such as neurite regeneration and synapse formation. Our previous study of compounds with neurite regeneration activity found that diosgenin, a compound derived from several species of yam, repaired axonal atrophy and synaptic degeneration and improved memory dysfunction in a the 5XFAD transgenic mouse model of AD [4
]. Very surprisingly, diosgenin treatment also enhanced object recognition memory in normal mice [5
]. An in vivo electrophysiological study indicated that diosgenin treatment facilitated spike firing and cross-correlation in the medial prefrontal cortex and hippocampal CA1 in normal mice [5
]. In addition, diosgenin-treated mice exhibited increases in axonal density and c-Fos expression in the medial prefrontal and perirhinal cortices, suggesting the enhancement of neuronal network activation. Mechanistically, diosgenin directly binds to and stimulates the membrane-associated rapid response steroid-binding receptor (1,25D3
-MARRS) in neurons [4
-MARRS is also expressed strongly in the human brain, particularly in cerebral cortical neurons, with moderate expression in the hippocampal neurons [6
Findings from our preclinical studies suggest that diosgenin could strengthen cognitive function in healthy humans and possibly AD patients. Furthermore, recent subjects have focused on several compounds derived from natural medicinal components, such as Gingko biloba
] and docosahexaenoic acid [9
], as cognitive enhancers. However, only diosgenin has been found to promote neurite growth and reinforce neuronal networks. Diosgenin, therefore, may represent a new category of cognitive enhancer with the essential ability to support morphological and functional neuronal network reinforcement.
Certain yam species contain high levels of diosgenin, as well as diosgenin glucosides that are metabolized to diosgenin following oral intake [11
]. In addition to our previous studies, a few animal studies reported that treatment with diosgenin [12
] or a diosgenin-containing yam extract [13
] ameliorated cognitive deficits in a mouse model of d
-galactose-induced senescence. However, none of those studies evaluated the efficacy of diosgenin in humans. In this study, we aimed, for the first time, to investigate the effects of a diosgenin-rich yam extract on cognitive functions in healthy humans. A rodent experiment was conducted to determine the appropriate prescription for brain penetration of diosgenin after the oral administration of a diosgenin-rich yam extract.
2.1. Trial Design
This placebo-controlled, randomized, double-blind, crossover study of healthy adults was conducted with the approval of the Ethics Committee of the University of Toyama. Each subject signed an informed consent form prior to study entry. The potential subjects (n
= 41) were allocated into two groups. Thirty-one subjects who met the inclusion criteria were enrolled; after three discontinued the study for personal reasons, data from 28 subjects were finally analyzed. All of the subjects visited the University of Toyama four times for testing. Further details of the CONSORT flowchart of the study are shown in Figure 1
The period of subject recruitment was from 12 December 2015 to 4 February 2016. The inclusion criteria for eligible subjects were as follows: (a) an age of ≥20 years; (b) facility with Japanese language; (c) residence in Toyama Prefecture, Japan; and, (d) good physical and mental health. The exclusion criteria were as follows: (a) diagnosis of AD or related disorders; (b) psychotic disorders; (c) cancer; (d) fewer than 12 years of education; (e) allergy to yam; and, (f) prescription for cognition-enhancing drugs or antipsychotics. Subjects were followed up from 1 March 2016 to 9 December 2016.
The diosgenin-rich yam extract diopower 15 (Anti-Aging Pro Corporation, Tokyo, Japan) was used in this study. The extract was prepared from Dioscorea batatas (synonym D. opposite) on a large scale. Placebo capsules (two capsules/day = 672 mg olive oil (75% of ingredients), glycerol fatty acid ester, vitamin E derivative, white beeswax) and yam capsules)two capsules/day = 50 mg diopower 15 (5.6% of ingredients, 8 mg diosgenin), 672 mg olive oil (75% of ingredients), glycerol fatty acid ester, vitamin E derivative, white beeswax) were produced by the manufacturer (Shiratori Pharmaceutical, Narashino, Japan) under Good Manufacturing Practice controls and ISO22000 certification.
2.4. Outcomes and Assessments
All of the participants completed a basic sociodemographic and medical history questionnaire and reported any medications used at baseline. The Japanese version of the Repeatable Battery for the Assessment of Neuropsychological Status (RBANS) was administered as the primary neurocognitive outcome measure. The Japanese version of the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE-J) was administered as a secondary outcome measure.
2.5. Neurocognitive Assessments
The RBANS, a representative, clinician-administered neuropsychological test for adults aged 20–89 years, was used to assess multiple cognitive function domains [14
]. This test includes 12 standard cognitive subtests grouped into the following five domains: immediate memory (list learning and story memory), visuospatial/constructional (figure copy and line orientation), language (picture naming and semantic fluency), attention (digit span and digit symbol coding), and delayed memory (list recall, list recognition, story recall, and figure recall). The reliability and validity of the Japanese version of the RBANS have been well-established [15
], and at least two forms have been prepared to avoid the effect of learning via test repetition. As noted above, the MMSE-J [16
] was also applied. The Japanese Adult Reading Test (JART) was used to estimate the intelligence quotients (IQs) of the subjects as a background measure.
2.6. Safety Assessment
The safety assessment included the recording adverse events and conducting of biochemical blood tests to assess liver and renal function and blood sugar and lipid levels at each visit.
The participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group consumed placebo capsules during the first round and yam capsules during the second round, whereas the second group consumed yam capsules during the first round and placebo capsules during the second round. Randomization was performed by a third-party company, CAC Croit Corporation (Tokyo, Japan), which secured the participant allocation list and performed key opening.
2.8. Animal Experiments: Animals and Materials
All of the animal experiments were performed in accordance with the Guidelines for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals of the Sugitani Campus of the University of Toyama. All of the protocols were approved by the Committee for Animal Care and Use of the Sugitani Campus of the University of Toyama. The respective approval numbers for animal and gene recombination experiments are A2014-INM1 and G2013INM-1, respectively. Every effort was made to minimize the number of animals used. All of the mice were housed in a controlled environment (25 ± 2 °C, 50 ± 5% humidity, 12-h light/dark cycle starting at 7:00 a.m.) with free access to food and water.
Male (6 weeks old), male and female (9 weeks old), or female ddY mice (6 weeks old) purchased from Japan SLC (Shizuoka, Japan) were used in the experiments. Test compounds or vehicle solutions were administered intraperitoneally (i.p.) or orally (p.o.) once per day for 5, 4, or 7 days using an oral gavage. Transgenic mice (5XFAD) were obtained from the Jackson Laboratory (Bar Harbor, ME, USA) and maintained as double hemizygotes by crossing with B6/SJL F1 breeders. The effects of diosgenin were tested on both 5XFAD mice and non-transgenic wild-type littermates (male and female, 25–27 weeks old).
Diosgenin was purchased from Wako (Osaka, Japan). Diopower 15 was purchased from Anti-Aging Pro Corporation (Tokyo, Japan). All of the oils used in this study met the Japanese Pharmacopoeia quality standards.
2.9. Animal Experiments: Object Recognition Test
On the penultimate day of drug administration, the mice were individually habituated to a polyvinyl chloride open-field box (30 cm × 40 cm; height, 36.5 cm) for 10 min. On the last administration day, the mice performed a novel object recognition test, in which two identical objects (colored ceramic ornaments) were placed at a fixed distance within a square box (30 cm × 40 cm; height, 36.5 cm, 70–100 lux). A mouse was then placed at the center of the box, and the number of times the mouse contacted the two objects during a 10-min period was recorded (training session). The mice were again placed into the same box following a 48-h or 1-h interval after the training session, and one of the objects used during the training session was replaced with a novel object (another ceramic ornament with a different shape and color). The mice were then allowed to explore the box freely for 10 min, and the numbers of times the mice contacted each object were recorded (test session). A preference index, defined as the ratio of the number of times a mouse made contact with any object (training session) or with the novel object (test session) over the total number of times the mouse made contact with both objects, was used to measure the cognitive function for objects.
2.10. Animal Experiments: Brain Penetration of Diosgenin after the Oral Administration of a Diosgenin-Rich Extract
Diopower 15 (50 mg) was dissolved in 790 μL (672 mg) of olive oil or suspended in 790 μL of distilled water. Yam samples or vehicle solution (olive oil or saline) was orally administered using an oral gavage to female ddY mice (8 weeks old). The mice were euthanized at 3, 6, and 12 h after administration. Blood was collected and centrifuged at 10,000× g and 4 °C for 10 min to yield plasma. Plasma aliquots (200 μL) were extracted with methanol, dried, and resolubilized in methanol (100 μL). The cerebral cortex was also collected, homogenized, extracted with methanol, dried, sonicated, and resolubilized in methanol (100 µL).
To calculate the diosgenin concentration in the brain using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS), a standard curve was generated by analyzing standard amounts of diosgenin solubilized in methanol. A Thermo Scientific Accela high-performance LC (HPLC) system, interfaced with an LTQ Orbitrap XL hybrid Fourier Transform Mass Spectrometer (Thermo Fisher Co., San Jose, CA, USA), was used to chemically profile diosgenin and the biosamples. The LC analysis was performed on a Capcell Pak C18 MGIII S-5 column (1.5 mm internal diameter × 150 mm, Shiseido, Tokyo, Japan) held at 40 °C with a flow rate of 200 μL/min. Ultrapure water (A) and ethanol (B) were used in the mobile phase, with the following linear elution gradient: 0–5 min, 65% B; 5–16 min, 95% B; 16–20 min, 55% B. The following electrospray interface (ESI) parameters were used: spray voltage, 4.5 kV; capillary voltage, 40.0 kV; tube lens, 150 V; capillary temperature, 330 °C; sheath gas flow rate, 50 units; aux gas flow rate, 10 units. We operated the mass spectrometer in the positive ESI mode with scanning from 50 to 2000 m/z, and calibrated the instrument using a polytyrosine solution before each experiment.
2.11. Statistical Analysis
The results are expressed as means with standard deviations (SD). Statistical comparisons were performed using GraphPad Prism 6 (GraphPad Software, La Jolla, CA, USA). All data were analyzed using two-tailed paired t-tests, and p values < 0.05 were considered significant.
Various effects of diosgenin, including anti-cancer, anti-cardiovascular disease, anti-hyperlipidemia, anti-type 2 diabetes, and neuroprotective effects, have been investigated in both animal studies and in vitro studies [17
]. However, studies have yet to report clinical evidence of the effects of diosgenin. In the present study, an orally administered diosgenin-rich yam extract was found to induce cognitive changes in healthy adults (20–81 years) according to the RBANS test outcomes (Table 2
). Interestingly, elder subjects (more than 47 years) showed significant positive effects of diosgenin-rich yam extract in RBANS total score (Table 2
and Figure 2
C). This study is the first to demonstrate the beneficial effects of a diosgenin-containing extract on cognitive functions in humans. The RBANS test was established and standardized carefully and provides a sensitive measure of changes in cognitive functions across a wide range of ages and populations. Among the RBANS subtests, we found that the diosgenin-rich yam extract especially enhanced semantic fluency within the language index (Table 3
The low oral bioavailability of diosgenin has been well recognized. This low absorption has been attributed to the poor solubility of diosgenin in water, and a previous rat study therefore proposed the formation of a complex with cyclodextrin to increase solubility [18
]. In our study, diosgenin dissolved in a 10% ethanol + 5% glucose solution had no effect on memory function in mice, despite successful solubilization (Figure 3
A). In contrast, diosgenin dissolved in oil was efficiently distributed in the blood and brain (Figure 4
), and exerted a memory enhancing effect both normal (Figure 3
B,C) and AD model mice (Figure 3
D). Hydrophobic compounds are generally absorbed by lymphatic vessels, and the use of an oil solvent might facilitate the lymphatic transfer of diosgenin. As a recent report identified lymphatic vessels in the brain [19
], oil solutions of diosgenin might improve the utilization of this efficient delivery system.
In our study, the diosgenin-rich yam extract was administered at a dosage of 50 mg/subject/day, which corresponded to 8 mg of diosgenin/subject/day. Other commercially available dietary supplements based on a diosgenin-rich yam extract contain diosgenin at much higher dosages (20–50 mg/subject/day, >2.5-fold higher). Our results therefore indicate our ability to efficiently deliver low doses of diosgenin to the brain. Diosgenin itself appears to be a very safe compound, with a reported oral toxicity dose (LD50) of >8000 mg/kg in mice and rats (>480 g/human). Therefore, the supplementation with a diosgenin-rich yam extract should be both safe and effective.
In our previous mouse experiments, diosgenin treatment activated spike firing in neuronal circuits, as well as increased axonal densities in normal mice [5
]. The present study findings suggest that a diosgenin-rich yam extract enhances cognitive function in healthy humans. Accordingly, we would like to conduct further human studies to obtain evidence of a relationship between increased neuronal excitation and axonal (white) matter, using modalities such as near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) or functional magnetic resonance combined with diffusion tensor imaging. We also expect that this diosgenin-rich yam extract might be effective for AD patients, given the improvements in memory observed in extract-treated AD model mice (Figure 3
D). An upcoming clinical study will focus on the anti-AD effects of this extract.