Pharmacopoeia Shakespeariensis

Image: L. Müeller/C.F. Schmidt, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, edited by Gustav Pabst, 1887.
Image: L. Müeller/C.F. Schmidt, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, edited by Gustav Pabst, 1887.

Continuing the ethnobotanical theme of previous posts, another great source of information regarding folk uses of plants is the writings of the Bard of Avon, England’s very own quillmeister, William Shakespeare. Take, for example, this line from Hamlet (Act 4, Scene V); Ophelia (to Laertes), ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…’ . Old wives’ tale, or sage advice (sorry, pun acknowledged, but unintentional)? Work by Mark Moss and Lorraine Oliver suggests the latter. They have demonstrated that performance on cognitive tasks is significantly related to concentration of absorbed 1,8-cineole (eucalyptol: 1,3,3-trimethyl-2-oxabicyclo[2,2,2]octane – a constituent of rosemary- Rosmarinus officinalis – essential oil). The effects were found for both speed and accuracy outcomes; which isn’t exactly ‘remembrance’, but related. Of more direct involvement in treating brain-related disorders is news that a semi-purified extract of the root of Withania somnifera ‘reverses Alzheimer’s disease pathology by enhancing low-density lipoprotein receptor-related protein in liver’. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but I do know it is welcome and encouraging news for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) sufferers, because AD is the ‘most common form of dementia… for which there is no cure… and which worsens as it progresses and eventually leads to death… and is predicted to affect 1 in 85 people globally by 2050’. OK, so much for the AD transgenic mice – in which test-organisms the work was performed – what about the human sufferers? No doubt treatment for those mammals is still some years away (at least in an officially sanctioned, state-approved, medical practitioner-prescribed, Western-style medicine approach…). In the meantime, I guess we just have to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that W. somnifera is a nootropical agent, which is one that ‘improves mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention, and concentration’. Presciently, W. somnifera gets several mentions in Michael Adams et al.’s survey of ‘plants traditionally used in age related brain disorders’. It will be interesting to discover what dementia-fighting properties the other >150 species surveyed therein might have…


  1. The compounds that contain both methyl (CH3) and phenol groups (OH) are most effective in treating Alzheimer’s disease because they scavenge peroxynitrites–the toxin responsible for the disease. Peroxynitrites oxidize choline transport systems, the enzyme choline acetyltransferase, and muscarinic acetylcholine rececptors, which leads to a huge deficit in acetylcholine–a compound critical for the storage and retrieval of short-term memories. Peroxynitrites also oxidate receptors involved in mood (serotonin and opioid), sleep (melatonin), social recognition (oxytocin), alertness (dopamine), and smell (olfactory). By nitrating NMDA receptors, peroxynitrites allow for the influx of calcium and the efflux of glutamate which kills brain cells. Methyl groups (which are found in all the medications currently prescribed for Alzheimer’s disease) weakly inhibit the formation of peroxynitrites and bind to them. Phenols strongly inhibit the formation of peroxynitrites and through hydrogen donation convert peroxynitrites into water and a nitrogen dioxide anion. Phenols also partially reverse peroxynitrite-mediated oxidation and nitration and thus partially reverse Alzheimer’s disease. Methyphenol compounds include eugenol in various essential oils (rosemary, bay laurel, holy basil, clove, cinnamon leaf, etc.), saponins in Bacopa monnieri (brahmi or water hyssop), and withaferins in Withania somnifera (Aswagandha root). Rosemary essential oil in conjunction with lemon, orange, and lavender essential oils delivered via aromatherapy have helped improve cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (Jimbo, et al. The effects of aromatherapy on patients with Alzheimer’s disease) and Bacopa monnieri has shown similar effectiveness in another clinical trial (Goswami, et al. Effect of Bacopa monnieri on cognitive functions in Alzheimer’s disease patients). The effective treatment of Alzheimer’s disease lies in natural products not synthetic medications.

Comments are closed.