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Ask Tufts Experts December 2015 Issue

Q. I keep seeing ads during the nightly news for a supplement containing a protein originally found in jellyfish that’s supposed to protect your memory. Could this really work?

A. When evaluating such claims, the first question to ask is whether they are supported by clinical trials published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, advises Irwin H. Rosenberg, MD, University Professor of Medicine and Nutrition at Tufts. In the case of the "jellyfish protein," the three studies cited by the manufacturer were conducted by and published by the company itself. It's also important to keep in mind that "dietary supplements" are not regulated the same as prescription drugs, Dr. Rosenberg notes, and manufacturers do not need to prove that "supplements" are safe or effective prior to marketing them. (In this case, in fact, the FDA issued a 2012 warning letter saying the product’s claims crossed the line to being an "unapproved new drug." The agency also cited more than 1,000 "adverse events" related to the product, some of which required hospitalization.)

There's also the question of whether any protein could survive the digestive system, which breaks down proteins into their constituent amino acids, and then subsequently follow the bloodstream into the brain. Says Dr. Rosenberg, "Proteins are unlikely to escape digestion in the GI tract, but it’s true that minuscule amounts of intact protein may get across. Small amounts might also cross the blood-brain barrier, perhaps associated with another penetrating molecule." Could any tiny amount of "jellyfish" protein that might reach the brain have any benefit? That has yet to be proven by the scientific standards required of products sold as drugs, not “supplements."

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