Compound Found In Californian Plant Might One Day Be Used Against Alzheimer’s

Yerba santa in bloom. Sundry Photography/Shutterstock

A compound found in a Californian shrub could one day be used to tackle brain aging and maybe even Alzheimer's disease, according to new research. It's still very early days but so far, the compound has been shown to have some intriguing anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects when tested on mouse cells in a dish. 

The medicinal plant is known as yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum), which is Spanish for "sacred herb". It has been used by Native Californian tribes to treat several ailments so the team looked into it, along with many other plants, when searching for promising compounds.

Yerba santa contains sterubin, a flavonoid compound. Several flavonoids have neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties so the team was interested to see what effect sterubin and other flavonoids might have on mouse nerve cells. They found that sterubin was effective against multiple inducers of cell death. The findings are reported in Redox Biology.

"This is a compound that was known but ignored," senior author Dr Pamela Maher, from the Salk Institute, said in a statement. "Not only did sterubin turn out to be much more active than the other flavonoids in yerba santa in our assays, it appears as good as, if not better than, other flavonoids we have studied."

The compound has a big impact on energy depletion and inflammation of nerve cells, particularly microglial cells. It’s an iron remover, which is good as iron can play a role in nerve cell damage. It also reduces the accumulation of misfolded proteins and lessens the inflammation seen in aging nerve cells.

“Alzheimer's disease is a leading cause of death in the United States," Maher continued. "And because age is a major risk factor, researchers are looking at ways to counter aging's effects on the brain. Our identification of sterubin as a potent neuroprotective component […] is a promising step in that direction."

The researchers now plan to investigate the effects of the compound on living animal models of Alzheimer’s like mice. They are interested in determining both the effects of sterubin and its toxicity. The team also suggests that it could be possible to test compounds in humans shortly, although the plants would have to be grown in standardized conditions. They say they see no major obstacles when it comes to producing a synthetic version of sterubin.

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