The plant compound apigenin — a flavonoid found in many herbs, spices, and vegetables such as parsley, red pepper, celery, chamomile, thyme, and artichokes — has been shown to improve neuron formation and strengthen brain cell connections.
The study was conducted by researchers at the D’Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR), Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). The findings show promise for the potential treatment of numerous neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia.
In earlier studies with animals, researchers found that flavonoids, in general, can positively affect memory and learning. Many other studies have also highlighted the potential of flavonoids to preserve and enhance brain function.
So while the effectiveness of flavonoids for brain health is not an entirely new concept, this is the first study to show the positive effects of apigenin directly on human cells and is also the first to reveal its mechanism.
“We show a new path for new studies with this substance,” said neuroscientist Stevens Rehen from IDOR and UFRJ, lead author of the paper. “Moreover, flavonoids are present at high amounts in some foods and we can speculate that a diet rich in flavonoids may influence the formation of neurons and the way they communicate within the brain.”
For the study, the scientists observed that by simply applying apigenin to human stem cells in a dish, the cells became neurons after 25 days — an effect they would not see without the substance. Even further, the neurons that were treated with this natural compound made stronger and more sophisticated connections among themselves.
“Strong connections between neurons are crucial for good brain function, memory consolidation, and learning,” said Rehen.
The researchers were able to demonstrate that apigenin works by binding to estrogen receptors, which in turn affects the development, maturation, function, and plasticity of the nervous system.
This group of hormones is known to delay the onset of psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. However, the use of estrogen-based therapies is limited because of the increased risk of estrogen-dependent tumors and cardiovascular problems.
Researchers believe apigenin can be used as an alternative approach on future treatments for neurodegenerative diseases as well as in neuronal differentiation strategies in laboratory.
The findings are published in the journal Advances in Regenerative Biology.