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Food for thought: Liquorice root may protect brain cells

A neuroscientist at the University of South Carolina is conducting research on a compound found in liquorice root that could prevent or slow down the cell death associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Rosemarie Booze
Rosemarie Booze

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.”

Booze’s research is funded by a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“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.”

Booze said creating synthetic forms of these naturally occurring compounds in plants is difficult to do in a lab.

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