Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

He started with 42 different plants species that are used by Lesotho’s traditional healers to treat mental illnesses! He ended up with one plant that had a huge potential! He and his team proved that potential in the laboratory— using frog’s eggs (oocytes)! Dr Mohale Mabaleha from the National University of Lesotho (NUL) is working with scientists from the University of the Free State (UFS), South Africa, and the University of Vienna, Austria, to find out what makes these plants useful in the treatment of mental illnesses.

Let’s get to the fascinating story (but never underestimate frogs—

“nketjoane o tumme a ntse a le metsing”).

Many Basotho herbalists claim that they can cure so many illnesses. In fact, some are so bold that there is nothing they can’t “cure,” even AIDSJ. Many-a-times such claims are difficult to comprehend. In the end, people end up dismissing even claims that might be true, “who knows which is which?” sceptics say.

So Dr Mabaleha, an Organic Chemist, and his international team of scientists, went out to put some of these claims to the test—scientifically, in the laboratory.

They were in for a surprise!

“First we did a survey,” the good Dr said. In Lesotho’s herbalists’ point of view, did they see mental illness as being a major problem in Lesotho? Secondly, did they think that the herbal mixtures they used to treat these illnesses just lightened the diseases or did they actually cure them? Lastly what plants were they using to treat these diseases? These were some of the questions posed and answered during the survey.

The answers were as fascinating as you could imagine.

Firstly, they did not, in their opinion, see mental illnesses as being a major problem in Lesotho. Secondly, whenever they were given a chance to treat such a disease, they said, they actually cured it, “re e ntša ka metso (we uproot it),” they said.

On the issue of which plants they used, it took a lot of convincing for obvious reasons. Dr Mabaleha had to work hard to convince them that he was a mere academic and the results of the study might actually help them.

In the end, he had 43 different plant species to work on, which was quite a mouthful!

Now the work began.

Firstly, he set out to collect the 43 plants species, but ended up with only 42.

It was not bad!

Then they had to screen the plants for GABA activity. What does that mean? “We took all of the 42 plants to see which of them could truly show signs that they could treat mental illnesses,” he said. How would they see such signs? “At least the plants extracts must show the ability to influence the brain (or the central nervous system) in one way or the other. If they could not be proven to influence the brain, then it would not be true that they could treat mental illness.”

The brain has what the good Dr called “receptors” which can be influenced by the plants extracts. That influence can be measured in the lab. “If the activity (influence) is 50% or higher, then the plant material tested is seen as having a potential to treat mental illnesses.”

“Now,” you might be wondering, “on what were the tests made?”

You won’t believe it! The frogs eggs, which can be easily made to behave like some human brain cells.

Of the 42 plants tested, 12 showed activities greater than 50%.

That was great!

Furthermore, 3 of the 12 active plants exhibited activities so good that they really surprised the international scientists.

One of the 3 most active plants was, however, very difficult to find. It looks like people are harvesting it so much that it is disappearing from the face of the planet—it’s called extinction. So they decided to remove it from the list. Now they were left with two. Still, the good Dr had to work on only one plant species. The amount of work with just one will take you full four years.

Then the work began.

“I now had to isolate compounds that were present in that plant so that we could see which of them were responsible for the observed activity,” he said. In all, he isolated 10 different compounds in that plant. He then found that out of the 10, only 5 were the ones which had influence on the brain. Interestingly, these compounds were all structurally similar.

Out of the 5 active compounds, 2 were found to be extremely active!

Can those compounds be used as medicine for the treatment of mental illness? Not yet! Toxicity tests should be carried out on the active compounds first. Subsequently, they will have to be tested in humans in the so-called clinical trials to prove that they could help humans.

How can we get hold of those active compounds if such trials succeed, so we can make a drug? Two things. We can either grow lots of plants from which the compounds were found or, “we can actually make those compounds in the lab now that we know how they look like,” Dr Mohale Mabaleha ended the conversation.

Click to View Photo Gallery