Compound found in liquorice root was found to be effective in preventing or slowing down cell death that commonly occurs in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
Dr. Rosemarie Booze, the Bicentennial Chair Professor in Behavorial Neuroscience in the university's College of Arts and Sciences, is isolating liquiritigenin-or LQ, as Booze calls it-and is testing its neural effects.
LQ is a phytoestrogen, a compound that is found naturally in plants and that mimics the hormone estrogen. Phytoestrogens bind to one of two types of estrogen receptors (ER) -- alpha and beta-found in cells in the human body, said Booze.
Ones that target alpha ERs, which are found throughout the body, have demonstrated qualities that may prevent some cancers, including breast, ovary and uterus. Beta ERs, which LQ targets, are found in cells in the brain
"Plants are amazing chemists!" 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."
"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," Booze said. "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."
Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and HIV-related dementia are neurodegenerative diseases because they involve the loss of neurons, or brain cells, over time.
"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 said. "We want to maintain that brain plasticity."