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Herbal Magic: Current Research

Resources old and new relating to herbs and medicinal plants

Research at Newcastle University

Current research at Newcastle University focuses on the screening of herbs for:

  • Neuroprotective agents for diseases such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease
  • Traditional herbal medicines as potential memory enhancers
  • Natural compounds that regulate glucose metabolism and insulin release and their potential impact on diseases such as diabetes and obesity
  • Natural compounds that protect against DNA damage and act as anti-aging agents
  • Functional foods with potential anti-cancer properties and protective effects on the cardiovascular system

See examples of MSc student projects and staff publications on this page.

MSc Medicinal Plants and Functional Foods projects

Here current MSc students tell us about their latest research projects.

Fruit Fly, Gordon BeakesRenate Jansen is investigating herbs and Parkinson's disease:

I'm doing my dissertation project on herbs used to treat Parkinson's disease in Ayurveda, a traditional system of medicine from India. The herbs I am using are cowhage (Mucuna pruriens), ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), gotu kola (Centella asiatica), brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) and bala (Sida cordifolia), which I am testing on their own and as a mixture. I will also compare them with the 'gold standard' treatment (levodopa) that is often used in conventional medicine. To do this, I am using fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) which have been genetically modified to mimic Parkinson's disease. The herbs are mixed with the food the flies grow on and when the flies are fully grown, their ability to climb up a wall (in this case of a measuring cylinder) is measured. This way, the effects of the herbs can be compared to each other, to the 'gold standard' treatment and to no treatment.

Image above: Drosophila melanogaster, copyright Gordon Beakes, Newcastle University. Image courtesy of Centre for Bioscience, the Higher Education Academy, ImageBank.

Green teaAwatf Abadi is investigating the effect of green and black teas on brain waves activity using electroencephalogram (EEG):

Traditionally, tea has been associated with many mental benefits, such as clarity of mind, relaxation, and attention enhancement. These physiological states can be measured in terms of brain activity in EEG. The brain persistently produces electrical impulses, called brain waves, which alter in characteristic ways from wakefulness to sleep. With EEG, these brain waves are recorded in terms of electrical activity over time and the relative power of different types of waves, e.g. theta waves, can be identified. Brain activity can be assessed either during a state of passive activity or whilst performing tasks and it can provide useful information about the brain state. To my knowledge, most previous studies have assessed the effect of dietary components of tea, caffeine and L-theanine, on EEG, but not the effect of tea itself. Thus, this is the first research project aiming to determine the potential effect of both green and black teas, at the typical daily dose (200ml), on brain waves activity using EEG.

Eight healthy participants, with different backgrounds of studies and experience, were involved in this study. They were asked to stop drinking tea and caffeinated beverages at least 24 hours before the beginning of the experiment. Then, the EEG measurements were performed using the HeadCoachTM EEG instrument provided by Alpha-Active Ltd Company. These measurements were taken at different time intervals: control (before tea drinking); 30 minutes and 1 hour after tea drinking. The obtained results will determine the effect of tea on the brain activity after its consumption, compared with the control.

Image above: Green Tea by Brandie Kajino, Flickr

Chloe Hodgson is screening natural plant compounds as potential anti-dementia therapies using a drosophila Tau model:

There are currently 800,000 people living with dementia in the UK at present, costing the government £23 million in 2012 alone. With Alzheimer’s disease (AD) as the leading type of dementia, the race is on to find novel treatments to help eradicate this debilitating disease.

One of the main theories suggested in AD pathology is the hyperphosphorylation of protein Tau, responsible for stabilization of the axonal area of neurons. Tau protein has been shown in the past to lead to axonal degeneration in neurons, leading to a diminished ability to transport data and compounds in neurons which will lead to lack of neuronal function and therefore has been said to be an important factor in AD pathology.

Ginkgo BilobaIn my current Msc research project, I am looking at the effects of natural compounds on the tau model in drosophila. Selection of the compounds was a combination of recent research as well as looking at natural products rumoured in traditional Chinese medicine and modern herbals to prolong life and improve memory. This led me to select Salvia officinalis (Sage), Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary), Ginkgo biloba and a plant hormone Abscisic acid. The compounds were applied to the fly food so that from egg to adult, they grew with it in the food. The adult drosophila were then tested using climbing assays and assessment of longevity to conclude whether or not the compounds had a significant effect on locomotion and longevity.

Preliminary results have been promising, with a low concentration of Sage doubling the climbing ability of flies induced with the phosphorylated tau protein.

Image above: Ginko Biloba by Carol Green, Flickr.

North East Medicinal Plant Research Group

The Medicinal Plant Research Group (known as Centre externally) was founded in 1996 and is a regional partnership between Newcastle, Northumbria and Durham Universities.

Their mission is:

To develop a ‘centre of research excellence’ for interdisciplinary research in the pharmacology of medicinal plants and to apply the advances in knowledge that emanate from this to develop novel plant based bioactives for health and disease, particularly in areas of neuroscience, clinical brain ageing, psychology, oncology, diabetes and ageing and health.

Explore their website for information on members and research activities in the region.

The MSc Medicinal Plants and Functional Foods course

This programme focuses on the development cycle for medicinal plants and functional foods, from identifying the plants in the field, to isolating the bioactive components in the lab and developing new medicines and nutritional foods.

Through the programme students will develop knowledge, skills and understanding in areas such as:

  • processes involved in the study and utilisation of medicinal plants and functional foods
  • data analysis relating to the identification of bioactive components and functional ingredients for incorporation in to novel products
  • legal requirements for the production of novel products containing bioactive and/or functional properties
  • techniques applicable to the isolation, identification and quantification of novel components with bioactive and/or functional properties
  • factors that affect the quality, safety and efficacy of medicinal plant and functional food products

The programme draws on expertise from the Schools of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Biology, Chemistry, Historical Studies and Law and the Faculty of Medical Sciences to provide a unique, interdisciplinary approach to this major subject area.

Interested in studying at Newcastle University?

More information about this course.

Find out what students studying on this course think.