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An interview with medicinal plant scientist Dr Howes on plants for neurodegeneration

  • Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes
    Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes

    Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes is the Senior Research Leader in Biological Chemistry, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

    She currently lead Kew’s Science Strategy Initiative ‘Biointeractions and Bioactive Molecules’ (Priority 2) which aims to explore biological interactions and bioactive molecules to unlock the useful properties in plants and fungi.

    Her own research is focused on investigating the chemistry and bioactive constituents of plants and fungi to understand the scientific basis for their uses, especially as medicines including for drug discovery.

    Her research also includes scientific studies on edible plants to explore their uses as food and to understand how they may benefit human health, for example, their potential role in reducing dementia risk.

    She uses techniques in natural product and analytical chemistry (including liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry) to chemically characterise plants and fungi. This includes the comparative analysis of specimens in Kew’s extensive living and preserved collections to provide new insights into the chemical diversity of plants and fungi and further understanding of their potential sustainable uses.

  • 3:9 reading time (ish)
  • Herbal Research
Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes
Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes

Dr Howes from Kew Gardens shares insights on her research around plants that protect the mind.

1. Why did you choose the plants you chose to research for neurodegeneration? 

My research has focused on edible plants because uncovering which edible plants could delay or prevent cognitive decline through the diet could provide more accessible and widespread benefits to people. Furthermore, emerging scientific evidence has suggested that certain dietary plants may have positive effects on cognitive functions, in addition to biological activities relevant to alleviating cognitive decline in ageing or dementia. These plants include sage, rosemary and lemon balm.

2. What are some of the challenges you face with herbal research?

One of the main challenges of research on plants is that their chemical profiles, and therefore their biological activities, can vary considerably, even within the same plant species. This may be due to various factors such as where the plant was grown and the associated environmental conditions, the age of the plant, the part of the plant, when the plant material was harvested, genetic factors, and how the plant is processed or prepared after harvesting. The complex and often varied mixtures of chemicals that can occur in plants can introduce challenges for their quality control, and when assessing which chemical or chemicals are the active constituents of a herbal plant.

3. What were the most interesting insights you found with your research on plants and neurodegeneration?

Plants can produce a diverse range of many different classes or types of chemicals. One of the most interesting insights from my research is that the chemical structures of plant chemicals that have biological activities relevant to brain or cognitive functions are highly diverse and occur in a range of different edible plants. This is particularly interesting as this chemical diversity could provide the basis for diets that could incorporate certain edible plants, with the aim of reducing potential cognitive decline.

4. Do you think herbs could potentially have a preventative role to play in neurodegeneration?  

A number of herbs, including those that cross the blurred boundaries of being used for both culinary purposes as part of the diet, and as medicinal plants, have shown biological activities to suggest they may have effects that could help prevent neurodegeneration and cognitive decline. However, most of these studies are from laboratory research only and much more research is needed to evaluate whether any benefits actually occur in people. More comprehensive scientific research is needed, including robust clinical trials in people, to understand if or how certain plants may be useful to prevent or delay neurodegeneration or cognitive decline.

Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes

Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes is the Senior Research Leader in Biological Chemistry, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew She currently lead Kew’s Science Strategy Initiative ‘Biointeractions and Bioactive... Read more

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