Medicinal Sapindaceae

The family Sapindaceae consists of 140 genera and 1500 species of trees widespread in tropical and subtropical regions. Classic examples of Sapindaceae are the fruit trees Nephelium lappaceum L. and Litchi chinensis Sonn., which provide rambutan and litchi, respectively. Chemically Sapindaceae are well known to abound with saponins and tannins. An example of ornamental Sapindaceae is Koelreuteria paniculata L., or golden rain tree, cultivated in temperate regions. The berries of Sapindus saponaria L., were used as soap by South American Indians, hence the origin of the word Sapindus from sapo and Indus or the soap of the Indies.

It can be said that the present state of knowledge on the pharmacological potential of this large family is virtually vestigial. A classic example of Sapindaceae of neuro-pharmacological interest is Paullinia cupana, used by the Tapajoz Indians of the Amazon region to make a tonic beverage since very early times. The dried paste prepared from the roasted seeds containing not less that 45% of caffeine has been used for the treatment of headache and astringent in diarrhea (British Pharmaceutical Codex, 1934, Brazilian Pharmacopoeia, 1959). Today a large number of phytopharmaceutical products containing guarana are on the market. Another example is Paullinia yopo, used for the same purpose by Colombian Indians. Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychostimulant substance, being self-administered throughout a wide range of conditions and present in numerous dietary products including coffee, tea, cola drinks, chocolate, candy, and cocoa.


The main mechanism of action of caffeine occurs via the blockade of adenosine receptors in the CNS. Adenosine is an autacoid, which is involved in the modulation of behavior, oxygenation of cells, and dilatation of cerebral and coronary blood vessels and indirectly inhibits the release of dopamine. The blockade of adenosine receptors by caffeine increases the activity of dopamine, which is implicated in the effects of caffeine (91). The question that arises from this observation is to know whether or not adenosine antagonists hold potential for the treatment of Parkinsonism, and further study on the adenosine receptor antagonists from medicinal plants should be encouraged. A possible source for such agents could be the medicinal flora of Asia and the Pacific, among which is the family Sapindaceae.

Erioglossum rubiginosum (Roxb.) Bl. (Erioglossum edule Bl, Sapindus rubiginosus Roxb, Lepisanthes rubiginosa (Roxb.) Leenh. is a treelet that grows up to 10 m tall and is common in coastal forests throughout tropical Asia. The stems are hairy; the leaves are paripinnate without stipules with a woolly rachis. Four to six pairs of folioloes, 10-12.5 cm X 3.5-4.5 cm. The influorescences are terminal panicles of small flowers with four petals and eight stamens. The fruits are blackish, edible, and fleshy. In Malaysia, a decoction of roots is used to mitigate fever and the leaves are used externally to treat skin disease. In Indonesia, the young stems are eaten to induce sleeping. An aqueous extract of pericarp of the fruits at intraperitoneal doses of 20 and 100 mg/kg significantly reduced the spontaneous locomotor activity, and at 100 mg/kg, increased the thiopental-induced sleeping time and affinity toward dopaminergic receptors, inhibited the apomorphine-induced climbing behavior in mice, and exhibited affinity toward D2 receptors, suggesting dopamine D2 antagonism (95).

Sapindus mukorossi Gaertn., or soapnut, Indian filbert, china berry, arishta, ritha (Sanskrit), wu huan tzu, mu huan tzu, fei chi tzu, p'u ti tzu, or kuei chien ch'ou (Chinese), is a large tree. The leaves are pinnate, grow up to 50 cm long, and show four to six pairs of folioles. The flowers are small, yellowish 3-4 mm long on terminal panicles. The fruits are globose, 2 cm across, and yellowish (Fig. 71). The drug consists of the dried seeds. In China, the seeds are roasted and eaten and the pericarp is used to treat skin diseases, remove tan, and freckles. The seed is also used to treat periodontal abscesses. In Burma, the fruits are used to treat epilepsy. In Taiwan, the flowers are used for heal inflamed eyes. In India, the plant is used to wash hair and delicate silk. In Malaysia, the plant is used as expectorant. The plant abounds with saponins and tannins, hence the antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, cosmetic, and expectorant properties mentioned earlier (96,97). Much less is known about the CNS properties of this plant, especially the anti-epileptic properties. Surprisingly, the physiopathology of epilepsy is poorly understood and so far, there is no clear association between the abnormal function of a specific group of neurons and the genesis of seizures, but Birioukova et al. made the interesting observation that the densities of D1 and D2 dopaminergic receptors were different in the striatum of rats with and without genetic predisposition for epilepsy (98). Is Sapindus mukorossi Gaertn., and the genus Sapindus in general, holding dopaminergic principles of value for the treatment of epilepsy?

Fig. 71. Sapindus mukorossi.
Sapindus Mukorossi Gaertn
Fig. 72. Dodonaea viscosa (L.) Jacq. From Singapore Field No 37952. Distributed by the Botanic Gardens Singapore. Geographical localization: Kedah near Sanitarium Langkawi, in sand near sea. Date: 11/13/ 1941. Field collector: J.C. Naeur. Botanical identification: M.R. Henderson.

Dodonaea viscosa (L.) Jacq., or Florida hop bush, or seringan laut (Malay), is a shrub that grows to a height of 6 m in the sandy shores of the tropical world, including Asia and the Pacific Islands. The leaves are simple, 7.5-12 cm X 2 cm X 3.6 cm. The fruits are 2 cm long, capsular, and dehiscing to expose one to two black seeds in each lobe (Fig. 72).

In Burma, the leaves are used in fomentations. In Taiwan and Palau, the leaves are used to treat eczema, ulcers, and to mitigate fever.

The antipyretic property of the plant is not confirmed yet, but Amabeoku et al. reported that an aqueous extract of Dodonaea angustifolia L. reduced fever induced by lipopolysaccharide in rodent (98). The principle involved here is unknown and one might think of 5,7,4,9-trihydroxy-3,6-dimethoxyflavone, which abounds in that plant (99). Flavonoids are able to interact with the dopaminergic system. Is the antipyretic property of Dodonaeae species the result of flavonoids via the dopaminergic control of the hypothalamic thermoregulation? What is the antipyretic potential of 9-trihydroxy-3,6-alkylethoxy flavone in general (Fig. 74)?

Pataki et al. showed that apomorphine and bromocriptine enhanced the elevation of body temperature induced by pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide in rats and observed that hyperthermia was antagonized by haloperidol, suggesting the involvement of the dopaminergic system (100).

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