African Plant May Help Aging Brains, Alzheimer’s
The inhabitants of a small island nation off the coast of Africa have been using a plant for centuries that may have the ability to help aging brains as well as diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies share what they have discovered thus far about this amazing plant.
The plant is called Voacanga africana, and it is a native of the West African rainforest regions. This evergreen has oval leaves, berries that contain brown seeds, and either yellow or white flowers. For centuries, natives of regions where the plant is plentiful have used it to improve stamina and endurance, help relieve painful menstruation, treat heart conditions, and for religious purposes. Some claim it also is an aphrodisiac.
The Salk Institute experts wanted to learn how much of the folklore has threads of truth, so they teamed up with several other researchers of herbal medicine, including local healers and Ceu Madureira, an ethnopharmacology researcher at the University of Coimbra, and several of her colleagues. Together they tested the compounds in V. africana to see if they had any potential use for problems associated with the nervous system.
The scientists used seven different extracts obtained from five species of plant growing on the island nation. Of the five, the natives claimed that three of them had an impact on the nervous system. The researchers used the other two plants as controls.
The scientists performed three tests to make the following determinations:
- The ability to shield cells from DNA damage associated with oxidative stress, which can result in age-related deterioration of the nervous system (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease)
- Anti-inflammatory properties, as inflammation plays a key role in dozens of health problems ranging from heart disease to arthritis and nervous system disorders
- Ability to prevent the accumulation of beta-amyloid peptides in neurons, a key feature of Alzheimer’s disease
The researchers found that V. africana provided significant results in all three tests, even when it was diluted. Further testing of V. africana revealed that one specific molecule called voacamine demonstrated properties that may make it a good candidate for treating Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and stroke.
Voacamine is a substance that has been approved to fight malaria in several African countries. Currently it also is being investigated by various research teams to determine its anticancer abilities.
For the current team of researchers, however, the next step will be to test voacamine in animal studies for its use in fighting preventing and managing neurodegeneration. V. africana is just one of countless numbers of plants around the world yet to be studied for their potential in helping the aging brain, Alzheimer’s disease, and scores of other diseases and conditions.
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Condello M et al. Voacamine modulates the sensitivity to doxorubicin of resistant osteosarcoma and melanoma cells and does not induce toxicity in normal fibroblasts. Journal of Natural Products 2014 Apr; 77(4): 855-62
Currais A et al. Screening and identification of neuroprotective compounds relevant to Alzheimer’s disease from medicinal plants of S. Tome e Principe. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 2014; 155(1): 830