The Role of Medicinal Herbs & Probiotics in Neurodegenerative Diseases

Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease (AD) and Parkinson's disease (PD), pose significant challenges to global healthcare systems due to their progressive nature and limited treatment options. Recent research has explored the potential of medicinal herbs and probiotics in managing these diseases. This article provides an overview of the current understanding of the role of medicinal herbs and probiotics in neurodegenerative diseases, focusing on their mechanisms of action and therapeutic potential.

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Understanding the Role of Medicinal Herbs and Probiotics in Neurodegenerative Diseases

 

Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and Parkinson’s disease (PD), pose significant challenges to global healthcare systems due to their progressive nature and limited treatment options. Recent research has explored the potential of medicinal herbs and probiotics in managing these diseases. This article provides an overview of the current understanding of the role of medicinal herbs and probiotics in neurodegenerative diseases, focusing on their mechanisms of action and therapeutic potential.

 

Introduction

 

Neurodegenerative diseases, characterized by the gradual loss of structure or function of neurons, represent a significant public health concern globally. Conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and Parkinson’s disease (PD) are associated with cognitive decline, motor dysfunction, and impaired quality of life. With the aging population, the prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases is expected to increase, highlighting the urgent need for effective treatments.

 

Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis: A Complex Communication Network

 

The microbiota-gut-brain axis represents a dynamic bidirectional communication network linking the gastrointestinal tract with the central nervous system. The human gut is home to an incredibly diverse and abundant microbial community, with an estimated 10 trillion bacteria comprising over 1,000 different species. This complex ecosystem interacts with the host in a dynamic way, contributing to both health and disease. The predominant phyla in the mammalian intestine include Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, Proteobacteria, Actinobacteria, and Fusobacteria.

 

The Role of Gut Microbiota in Health and Disease

 

The gut microbiota plays a crucial role in maintaining gut homeostasis and regulating various physiological functions, including digestion, metabolism, nutrient biosynthesis, and immune system development. By fermenting indigestible plant components and endogenous mucous, gut bacteria produce essential nutrients such as vitamin K, B vitamins, and amino acids. Additionally, the microbiota aids in energy harvest through the metabolism of complex polysaccharides from fiber from our food, generating short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the process.

 

Understanding the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis

 

The microbiota-gut-brain axis involves interactions between the enteric nervous system (ENS) within the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system (CNS). Often referred to as the “second brain,” the ENS regulates basic gut functions such as gut motility, intestinal permeability, and mucosal immune activity. It shares similar neurotransmitters and signaling molecules with the brain, facilitating bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain.

 

Communication Pathways of the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis

 

The gut communicates with the brain through multiple pathways, including the neural pathway (e.g., vagus nerve, ENS, neurotransmitters, and SCFAs), immune pathway (e.g., cytokines), and neuroendocrine pathways (e.g., gut hormone secretion). Neuroactive metabolites produced by the gut microbiota modulate the microbiome-gut-brain axis, influencing gut-barrier function, hormone secretion, neurotransmitter production, and enteric glial signaling.

 

Enteroendocrine Cells and Hormone Secretion

 

Specialized gut epithelial cells called enteroendocrine cells (EECs) monitor the contents of the gut lumen and secrete hormones and signaling mediators in response. Metabolites from gut commensal microbes regulate hormone secretion from EECs, affecting processes such as intestinal transit time. EECs directly provide signals to the brain via the vagus nerve, representing a key bidirectional pathway in the microbiota-gut-brain axis.

 

Serotonin Production and Gut-Brain Signaling

 

Approximately 95% of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in regulating motility and secretion in the gut, is produced by specialized neuroendocrine cells called enterochromaffin cells. The gut microbiota plays a crucial role in tryptophan metabolism, the precursor to serotonin, further highlighting the importance of gut-brain signaling in maintaining physiological function.

 

Understanding the microbiota-gut-brain axis and its complex communication pathways is essential for unraveling the role of the gut microbiota in health and disease. Dysfunctions in this axis have been implicated in various neurological disorders, including neurodegenerative diseases, highlighting the potential therapeutic implications of targeting the gut microbiota to promote brain health and function.

 

Medicinal Herbs in Neurodegenerative Diseases

 

Many medicinal herbs have been used in traditional medicine as both nootropics and to treat neurological and neurodegenerative disease. The following sections explore some of the evidence basis for these therapies.

 

Bacopa monnieri (Brahmi, Bacopa, or Water Hyssop)

 

Bacopa monnieri, a herb used in traditional medicine such as Ayurveda, has gained attention for its potential neuroprotective effects. Key findings regarding Bacopa monnieri include:

 

  • Bacosides A and B, high abundance dammarane-type triterpenoid saponins, are implicated in its neuropharmacological effects.
  • Clinical trials suggest that Bacopa monnieri may improve cognition, focus, and memory outcomes in patients with age-associated memory impairment and healthy elderly subjects.
  • Animal studies have demonstrated its anti-amyloidogenic and neuroprotective potential, modulating serotonergic pathways to enhance cognition.
  • Bacopa monnieri has also been shown to enhance predicted butyrate potential in human gut microbiota, potentially impacting neuroactive butyrate levels.

 

Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha)

 

Withania somnifera, commonly known as Ashwagandha, is an important herb in Ayurvedic medicine. Key findings regarding Withania somnifera include:

 

  • Active chemical constituents, including alkaloids, steroidal lactones, and saponins, contribute to its therapeutic effects.
  • Preclinical studies have demonstrated its potential in attenuating oxidative stress and modulating key proteins involved in neural cell growth, differentiation, and communication.
  • Human clinical trials suggest that Withania somnifera may improve memory, executive function, attention, and information-processing speed in individuals with mild cognitive impairment.
  • Despite promising preclinical and clinical data, studies investigating the efficacy of Withania somnifera in neurodegenerative diseases are lacking.

 

Mucuna pruriens var. utilis (Kapikacchu)

 

Mucuna pruriens var. utilis, also known as Kapikacchu or velvet bean, is a natural source of levodopa and is used in Ayurvedic medicine for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Key findings regarding Mucuna pruriens var. utilis include:

 

  • The seeds contain levodopa, various alkaloids, and trace 5-hydroxytryptamine, contributing to its neuroprotective effects.
  • Clinical trials have reported improvement in motor symptoms in patients with Parkinson’s disease following treatment with Mucuna pruriens var. utilis.
  • Compared to conventional drug therapy, Mucuna pruriens has demonstrated rapid onset of action, longer motor-on times, and reduced dyskinetic outcomes.
  • Further research is needed to explore the long-term efficacy and safety of Mucuna pruriens in larger clinical trials.

 

Probiotics in Neurodegenerative Diseases

 

Role of Probiotics in Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)

 

Probiotic interventions have shown promise in the management of Alzheimer’s disease. Key findings regarding probiotics in AD include:

 

  • Probiotic treatment has been associated with improvements in learning and memory, as well as reductions in oxidative stress and inflammation in patients with AD.
  • Clinical trials have demonstrated that probiotics, either alone or in combination with selenium, can improve cognitive function and metabolic parameters in patients with AD.
  • Probiotic supplementation has been shown to increase nitric oxide bioavailability, decrease markers of inflammation and oxidative stress, and improve memory and executive function in patients with AD.

 

Role of Probiotics in Parkinson’s Disease (PD)

 

Probiotics have also shown potential in managing Parkinson’s disease and associated gastrointestinal symptoms. Key findings regarding probiotics in PD include:

 

  • Synbiotics, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium longum, have been shown to improve constipation and gastrointestinal symptoms in patients with PD.
  • Preclinical and clinical studies have demonstrated the ability of probiotics to improve neuroinflammation, neurogenesis, and microglial activation in PD.
  • Certain microbial therapies have systemic implications for gut and brain health, suggesting a role for probiotics in modulating the microbiota-gut-brain axis.

 

Gut Microbiota-Modulatory Potential of Medicinal Herbs

 

Medicinal herbs possess significant prebiotic effects on gut microbial communities, potentially influencing their therapeutic properties. Key findings regarding the gut microbiota-modulatory potential of these medicinal herbs include:

 

  • Bacopa monnieri, Ashwagandha, and Kapikacchu have all been shown to significantly alter gut microbiota composition and increase the abundance of beneficial species.
  • These herbs have been found to increase the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), particularly butyrate, which plays a crucial role in gut-brain communication.
  • Changes in gut microbial community metabolism induced by these herbs may alter signaling via the enteric nervous system (ENS), influencing neurological function and neurodegenerative disease progression.

 

Conclusion

 

Emerging evidence suggests that medicinal herbs and probiotics hold promise as adjunctive therapies for neurodegenerative diseases. However, further research, including well-controlled, large-scale clinical trials, is needed to fully understand their mechanisms of action and therapeutic potential. By exploring the microbiota-gut-brain axis, researchers aim to develop targeted therapeutic strategies for the management of neurodegenerative diseases, improving patient outcomes and quality of life.

 

Reference

 

Peterson, C.T. (2020). Dysfunction of the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis in Neurodegenerative Disease: The Promise of Therapeutic Modulation with Prebiotics, Medicinal Herbs, Probiotics, and Synbiotics. J Evid Based Integr Med. 2020 Jan-Dec:25:2515690X20957225.


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