Current St. John's wort research from
mode of action to clinical efficacy

Muller WE.
Department of Pharmacology,
Biocenter J.W. Goethe University,
Marie-Curie Street 9, 60439, Frankfurt, Germany
Pharmacol Res 2003 Feb;47(2):101-9


Preparations from St. John's wort extracts are used in the treatment of depression in many countries and represent an accepted alternative to synthetic antidepressants or behavioural therapy. St. John's wort extracts are therefore used in a therapeutic area which extends well beyond the traditional field of herbal medicine. The current status of preclinical and clinical research is summarised. St. John's wort extract has a clear inhibitory effect on the neuronal uptake not only of serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine but also of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and L-glutamate. No other antidepressant shows an approximately equally broad inhibitory profile. In good agreement with the effects in various biochemical models of antidepressant action, many effects in a number of behavioural pharmacology models of antidepressant efficacy could also be demonstrated for St. John's wort extract. Similar doses of John's wort also cause changes in the above-mentioned neurotransmitter systems in the brain. Out of all individual substances of St. John's wort only hyperforin and its structural analogue adhyperforin inhibit the re-uptake of the investigated neurotransmitters. However, hyperforin does not act as a competitive inhibitor at the transmitter binding sites of the transporter proteins but it affects the sodium gradient which then leads to an inhibition of uptake. The broad spectrum of action which characterises St. John's wort extracts has only been described for the pure substance hyperforin. Over the past year a number of good clinical studies have been carried out which confirm the efficacy and tolerability of St. John's wort extracts in mild depressive disorders, even if the therapeutic efficacy has recently been questioned by an American study. All studies have confirmed the good tolerability of St. John's wort extract and the very low frequency of adverse events. However, some drug interactions have been found to occur with St. John's wort extract, a number of which are of clinical relevance. In summary, pharmacological activity and therapeutic efficacy of St. John's wort extract as an antidepressant are supported by a large number of scientific publications. Within the wide range of components in St. John's wort extract, hyperforin plays an important, if not an outstanding role.

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