A plant used for centuries as a pain
reliever in Chinese medicine may be just what the doctor ordered, especially
when it comes to chronic pain.
A key pain-relieving ingredient is a
compound known as dehydrocorybulbine (DHCB) found in the roots of the flowering
plant Corydalis, a member of the poppy family, according to researchers who
report their findings in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.
"Our study reports the discovery of a
new natural product that can relieve pain," says Olivier Civelli of the
University of California, Irvine. "This analgesic acts in animal assays
against the three types of pain that afflict humans, including acute, inflammatory, and neuropathic or
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Civelli, along with Xinmiao Liang, made the
discovery as part of the "herbalome" project, an effort to catalogue
all of the chemical components of traditional Chinese medicine.
plants that were the focus of the new study grow mainly in central eastern
China, where underground tubers are harvested, ground, and boiled in hot
vinegar. Those concoctions are often prescribed to treat pain, including
headaches and back pain.
The researchers went looking for compounds
in Corydalis that appeared likely to act in a manner similar to morphine.
"We landed on DHCB but rapidly found that it acts not through the morphine
receptor but through other receptors, in particular one that binds
dopamine," Civelli explains. The discovery adds to earlier evidence
showing that the dopamine D2 receptor plays a role in pain sensation.
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While Corydalis extracts or isolated DHCB
work against all types of pain, they hold special promise for those who suffer
with persistent, low-level chronic pain. For one thing, DHCB doesn't appear to
lose effectiveness with time in the way that traditional opiate drugs do.
"We have good pain medications for
acute pain: codeine or morphine, for example," Civelli says. "We have
pain medication for inflammatory pain, such as aspirin or acetaminophen. We do
not have good medications for chronic pain. DHCB may not be able to relieve
strong chronic pain, but may be used for low-level chronic pain."
Although Corydalis preparations of various
types can already be purchased online, Civelli and Liang say DHCB isn't ready
for prime time just yet. Further testing for toxicity is needed before doctors
should consider prescribing it to patients.
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