The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) estimates that nearly 40% of adults in the United States use alternative medicines, often in the form of an herbal supplement. Extracts from the tree bark of magnolia species have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicines to treat a variety of neurological diseases, including anxiety, depression, and seizures. The active ingredients in the extracts have been identified as the bi-phenolic isomers magnolol and honokiol. These compounds were shown to enhance the activity of GABA(A) receptors, consistent with their biological effects. The GABA(A) receptors exhibit substantial subunit heterogeneity, which influences both their functional and pharmacological properties. We examined the activity of magnolol and honokiol at different populations of both neuronal and recombinant GABA(A) receptors to characterize their mechanism of action and to determine whether sensitivity to modulation was dependent upon the receptor's subunit composition. We found that magnolol and honokiol enhanced both phasic and tonic GABAergic neurotransmission in hippocampal dentate granule neurons. In addition, all recombinant receptors examined were sensitive to modulation, regardless of the identity of the α, β, or γ subunit subtype, although the compounds showed particularly high efficacy at δ-containing receptors. This direct positive modulation of both synaptic and extra-synaptic populations of GABA(A) receptors suggests that supplements containing magnolol and/or honokiol would be effective anxiolytics, sedatives, and anti-convulsants. However, significant side-effects and risk of drug interactions would also be expected.
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