Plants to slow Alzheimer’s

John Thor Arnason and Steffany Bennett observe images on a screen in a laboratory.
Ancient knowledge meets modern science

John Thor Arnason, uOttawa biologist, and Steffany Bennett, University Research Chair, studied ancient traditions to find plants that hold promise for treating Alzheimer’s disease.

For millennia, the Q’eqchi’ Maya of Central America and the Cree and Inuit of northern Quebec have used plants to treat everything from snakebite to mental confusion. Recently, their traditional healers asked uOttawa experts to scientifically validate the medicinal effects of their natural pharmacy. In the process, John Thor Arnason, a biologist at uOttawa’s Centre for Research in Biopharmaceuticals and Biotechnology, and Steffany Bennett, University Research Chair in neuro-lipidomics, have found promising plants for treating Alzheimer’s.

The pepper family from the jungles of Belize tops the charts in a hit parade of more than 350 medicinal plants identified by the Q’eqchi’. Extracts have been used to counteract snake venom and ease Alzheimer’s-related symptoms like anxiety and hallucinations. Snake venom contains an enzyme related to the CPLA-2 enzyme found in the brains of early onset Alzheimer’s patients, says Arnason. “This is ancient knowledge which has been tested by trial and error. Traditional healers have a pretty good sense of plant materials which may have activity in the nervous system,” he says.

Among the 50 plants suggested by the Cree and Inuit, the carnivorous Pitcher plant is known to worsen Alzheimer’s symptoms but ease Type-2 diabetes. Bennett says that this, too, could provide clues for new treatments. She is conducting a pre-clinical trial using mice with Alzheimer’s to explore how some plant compounds appear to make cells more resistant to the damaging effects of degenerative brain disease.

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