(NaturalNews) Could natural compounds in plants hold the key to helping prevent or treat neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and even HIV-related dementia? University of South Carolina (USC) neuroscientist Dr. Rosemarie Booze thinks that's a distinct possibility because a substance found in licorice (also known as liquorice) root may prevent the nerve cell loss in the brain that's associated with those devastating health problems.
Dr. Booze, who's the Bicentennial Chair Professor in Behavorial Neuroscience in the USC College of Arts and Sciences, is isolating liquiritigenin (dubbed LQ by Dr. Booze) from licorice root and testing its effects on brain cells (neurons). LQ is one of several natural phytoestrogens which mimics the hormone estrogen. There are two forms of phytoestrogens that bind to either alpha or beta estrogen receptors (ER) in the human body. Previous research has shown phytoestrogens that target alpha ERs, which are found throughout the body, may prevent breast, ovarian and uterine cancer. But it turns out the licorice compound LQ is a beta ER -- which means it targets cells in the brain.
"Alpha and beta estrogen receptors are very close in structure, but beta estrogen receptors are more localized in the brain and have different effects on brain cells," Dr. Booze explained in a statement to the media. "We know that LQ is the active compound in one traditional Chinese medicine and is used to treat post menopausal women. We're looking at it for its brain effects. LQ may be novel in Western cultures, but it has been used in Eastern cultures for a long time."
Dr. Booze's research is the first ever conducted on LQ and the first to test several phytoestrogens on brain cells. She and her USC research colleagues are running a variety of lab tests to see if these compounds not only help nerve cells survive but if they can trigger neurons to make new connections. By studying the cells exposed to the phytoestrogens in Petri dishes, the scientists can document which parts of the compounds are critical for nerve-cell survival and how these phytoestrogens differ from the actual hormone estrogen.
"Plants are amazing chemists!" Dr. Booze said. "Phytoestrogens are only made by plants, and there are several different ones that target estrogen receptors. We are focusing on the beta compounds for neural effects, and these can be found in liquorice root, soybeans and other plants. We're testing the ability of plant-derived phytoestrogens, such as genistein and LQ, to help nerve cells survive in neurodegenerative diseases and keep neurons connected and functional." She added that one reason LQ shows such promise is that the natural compound is absorbed easily in the intestines and crosses the blood-brain barrier very well.
Dr. Booze, whose groundbreaking research is funded by a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), shared a personal reason why she is so passionate about pursuing the potential of plant compounds to help so-called incurable brain diseases: "I hope that the compound like LQ, or these other new estrogen receptor beta-targeted compounds, would both prevent and slow neurodegeneration in these devastating diseases. My father has severe Parkinson's, so I understand what families go through and how desperate the need is for any neuroprotective therapeutic, and this work with phytoestrogens opens up a whole new era of research for neuroscientists."
More breaking news about licorice: in research recently published in the journal Integrative Cancer Therapies, Chinese scientists have found that glabridin, a flavonoid obtained from licorice, could potentially treat human non-small cell lung cancer.