Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) is a flowering herb used in Chinese medicine that has gained recognition for its role in the treatment of inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. Scutellaria baicalensis is not to be confused with other members of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, such as Scutellaria lateriflora found in North America. Both of these species and others are referred to as skullcap because of the shape of their flowers’ calyx.
Bacterial and Viral Infections
Chinese skullcap has other effects in addition to its anti-inflammatory property. Some of the earliest published research documented a bactericidal effect against oral bacteria.1 This effect was subsequently documented in a trial that tested the effects of a toothpaste containing an extract of the herb, which found a reduction in the extent of gingivitis, plaque development, and associated bacteria.2
The Scutellaria baicalensis flavonoid baicalin has shown an ability to inhibit human T cell leukemia virus.3 Baicalin has also demonstrated an ability to inhibit HIV-1 infection and replication in human lymphoid and mononuclear cells.4 Another in vitro study found that the Scutellaria flavonoid wogonin suppressed hepatitis B virus surface antigen production.5 And in a study of patients with severe hand, foot, and mouth disease which compared the effects of Scutellaria baicalensis to those of the antiviral drug ribavirin, Scutellaria baicalensis was more effective at reducing fever duration, time to nervous system involvement, and viral loads, as well as the number of participants with oral ulcers and skin rashes.6
Scutellaria baicalensis flavonoidsbaicalin, baicalein, and wogonin have demonstrated an anti-inflammatory effect similar to that of the drug prednisolone.7 A study published in 2016 found that baicalein inhibits the activation of nuclear factor-kappa beta transcription factors that are involved in inflammation, immunity and other processes.8
In an experiment involving cultured human umbilical vein endothelial cells, baicalein inhibited the reduction of tissue plasminogen activator (tPA, involved in the breakdown of blood clots) production induced by the enzyme trypsin.9 Elsewhere, Y. Kimura and colleagues concluded that baicalein “might be active as a drug in the treatment of arteriosclerosis and thrombosis.”10
A review of baicalein’s cardiovascular properties noted that “Baicalein is a potent free radical scavenger and xanthine oxidase inhibitor, thus improving endothelial function and conferring cardiovascular protective actions against oxidative stress-induced cell injury. The pharmacological findings have highlighted the therapeutic potentials of using plant-derived baicalein and its analogs for the treatment of arteriosclerosis and hypertension.”11
In rat brain cortex mitochondria, baicalein and baicalin inhibited lipid peroxidation, and in human neuroblastoma cells, the flavonoids protected against hydrogen peroxide-induced injury. It was suggested that baicalein and baicalin could be used to scavenge free radicals that occur in excess in head injuries.12
Scutellaria baicalensis has been used historically in Chinese medicine for its anticancer effects.13 In a study involving human squamous cell carcinoma, breast cancer, colon cancer, liver cancer, and prostate cancer, the herb inhibited growth of all cell lines while dose-dependently inhibiting prostaglandin E2, a metabolite of arachidonic acid that is involved in inflammation.13 In four types of human prostate cancer cells, baicalin inhibited cancer cell proliferation, which was associated with the induction of apoptosis (programmed cell death).14 Investigation of Scutellaria baicalensis extract as well as its compounds skullcapflavone, wogonin, baicalein and neobaicalein in prostate cancer cells revealed comparable cell cycle modifications, growth inhibitory levels, and global gene expression profiles.15 In mice, the compounds decreased the growth of prostate cancer grafts by 55%.15
Scutellaria baicalensis and baicalin have been shown to inhibit the overgrowth of human prostate cancer cells stimulated by the hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT).16 Also, baicalin has been shown to inhibit androgen activation signaling and to promote human dermal papilla cell proliferation, suggesting that these extracts could be used for treating androgen-associated disorders, such as androgenetic alopecia.16
In a study involving human head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cell lines, Scutellaria baicalensis inhibited growth as well as COX-2 expression.17 And in human brain tumor cells, Scutellaria baicalensis inhibited cell growth in recurrent and drug resistant cell lines, supporting a potential use against glioblastoma multiforme.18
Investigation of baicalin and baicalein has revealed an anti-angiogenic effect (ability to prevent new blood vessel formation), which may contribute to its anticancer effect.19
A study that tested the effects of Scutellaria extract enriched with baicalin in peripheral white blood cells obtained from children with acute lymphocytic leukemia resulted in lower viability of these cells, without affecting the survival of healthy white blood cells.20Scutellaria extract was found to induce apoptosis in these as well as B-type human leukemia cells.20
Scutellaria baicalensis may also be helpful to reduce side effects of chemotherapy. Lung cancer patients treated with chemotherapy and Scutellaria baicalensis underwent stimulation of red blood cell formation, which can be suppressed by chemotherapy.21 The herb was also shown to increase T-lymphocytes in chemotherapy-treated lung cancer patients.22
Brain Health and Aging
Human subjects who received Scutellaria baicalensis and Acacia catechu exhibited significant improvement in accuracy and speed of processing information in computer tasks, suggesting that the combination could help maintain memory, support processing speed, and reduce memory errors that occur with aging.23 In a rat study, baicalein has been shown to reduce the release of glutamate in nerve terminals of the brain’s hippocampus and help protect neurons against kainic acid-induced excitotoxicity.24
“Scutellaria baicalensis Georgi is the most widely used medicinal plant in traditional Eastern medicine, especially in Chinese medicine,” note B. P. Gaire and colleagues in the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine.25 Like most herbs, Scutellaria baicalensis has a variety of traditional and modern uses. Future research could see the development of Scutellaria baicalensis as a source of new prescription drugs for cancer and other needed areas.
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- Chang Y et al. Am J Chin Med. 2016;44(5):943-62.
- Gaire BP et al. Chin J Integr Med. 2014 Sep;20(9):712-20.