Ethnopharmacological relevance A previous pilot ethnobotanical and ethnopharmacological study with the Q'echi Maya identified the family Piperaceae, as an important taxonomic group traditionally used for the treatment of epileptic and culture-bound anxiety disorders and possessing activity in the GABA system. Following that lead, a botanical survey was conducted in Peru, where 47 species of Piperaceae were collected including 21 plants traditionally used for folk illnesses by the Yanesha of Peru, an indigenous Amazonian group. Materials and methods Two high throughput bioassays were used to quantify the in vitro activity of botanical extracts on the GABA system. Results Plant extracts demonstrated moderate to high affinity to the γ-aminobutyric acid benzodiazepine (GABA-BZD) receptor. In addition, extracts demonstrated low to moderate activity in the inhibition of the GABA-transaminase, with select plants exhibiting significant activity. Plants indicated by the Yanesha showed comparable activity to the other Piperaceae plants collected. Piper cremii was the most active plant in the GABA-BZD receptor assay, and Drymaria cordata (Caryophyllaceae) in the GABA-T assay. Conclusion The study provides evidence that there is a pharmacological basis behind the use of plants in the treatment of susto and mal aire in both Central and South America, and we propose that the possible mechanism of action includes an interaction with the GABA-T enzyme and/or the GABAA-BZD receptor.
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