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“They are potent compounds as natural plants,” Booze said.

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.”

Booze’s research is the first ever done on LQ and the first to test some of these phytoestrogens in the brain. She and a USC research team are testing the ability of these compounds to help nerve cells survive, and even make new connections, in laboratory petri dishes. This allows them to see which parts of the compound are critical for nerve-cell survival and how these phytoestrogens are different from the actual hormone estrogen.

“LQ absorbs well in the intestines, and it crosses the blood-brain barrier very well,” said Booze. “LQ may be novel in Western cultures, but it has been used in Eastern cultures for a long time.”

Working with Booze on the LQ research are fellow USC neuroscientists Dr. Charles Mactutus, Dr. Michael Aksenov, Dr. Jun Zhu; current graduate students Landhing Moran, Lauren Hord and Sarah Bertrand; and several undergraduates, including Tor Espensen-Sturges, who is testing the LQ as part of her honors thesis.

Booze has been conducting research on the relationship between chemical compounds and the brain for more than 20 years. During that time, her research has received continuous funding from the NIH, totaling more than $17 million to date. A recent NIH grant renewal will extend her funding through 2015.

LQ isn’t Booze’s first foray into phytoestrogen research. She did similar work in isolating estrogen receptor compounds in soybeans. The alpha ER compounds found in soy have shown to help protect against female cancers. Soy is found in cosmetics, as well as in cereals, breads and legumes.

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