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Medical Advances

A Natural Path to New Therapies

Healers Inspire Research for Mental Health Treatments

To better treat mental health, scientists at Northwestern Medicine are finding inspiration overseas. Plants used by healers in Nigeria offer the origins of four new compounds developed by the Northwestern Medicine team that may someday provide relief for people with psychiatric disorders.

Natural healers boil certain plants to produce an extract to treat people with mental illness. The extract, however, is not always pure and can contain other compounds that may not be beneficial to the patient. By creating natural compounds from the alkaloids found in the plants, the Northwestern Medicine scientists hope to create new therapies for people with mental illness.

Medications for schizophrenia treat delusions and hallucinations, but are only partially effective in treating the disease's cognitive impairment symptoms. Based on the positive results of animal studies, the scientists are optimistic that the alkaloids found in plants can improve upon that shortcoming.

A Unique Position of Potential

The research represents a collaboration between Karl Scheidt, PhD, professor of pharmacology, and Herbert Meltzer, MD, professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, pharmacology and physiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Dr. Meltzer has spent much of his career researching drug therapies for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and sought out Scheidt for his expertise in designing new strategies for constructing complex natural products. The team’s successful synthesis of these alkaloids using high-level purification resources and research instrumentation is a significant achievement – one that places them in a unique position to explore the compounds’ potential.

The scientists synthesized the four new chemicals, and hope to use them to evaluate the most beneficial and effective parts of the plant. The compounds represent a starting point for a new generation of molecules to be used in innovative treatments. Having built the “assembly line,” they can now create larger quantities of any of the compounds for future studies and clinical trials. Early results in animal studies already suggest that these compounds can increase the ability of antipsychotic medications to better treat cognitive impairment as hoped.