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It was thought that excessive absinthe-drinking led to effects which were specifically worse than those associated with over-indulgence in other forms of alcohol — which is bound to have been true for some of the less-scrupulously adulterated products, creating the condition absinthism. Undistilled wormwood essential oil contains a substance called thujone, which is an epileptic (and can cause renal failure) in extremely high doses, and the supposed ill effects of the drink were blamed on that substance in 19th century studies.
The effects of absinthe have been described by artists as mind opening, and even hallucinogenic and by prohibitionists as turning good people mad and desolate. Both are exaggerations. Sometimes called "secondary effects", the most commonly-reported is a "clear headed" drunk feeling and thujone was said to be the cause. The placebo effect and individual reaction to the herbs makes these secondary effects very subjective and minor compared to the psychoactive effects of alcohol.
More recent studies have shown that very little of the thujone present in wormwood actually makes it into a properly distilled absinthe, even one re-created using historical recipes and methods, so much so that a recent French distiller has had to add pure essential oil of wormwood to make a "high-thujone" variant of his product. It can remain in higher amounts in oils produced by other methods than distillation, or when wormwood is macerated and not distilled, especially when the plant stems are used, where thujone content is the highest.
A study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol concluded that a high concentration of thujone in alcohol has negative effects on attention performance. It slowed down reaction time and subjects concentrated their attention in the central field of vision. Medium doses did not produce a noticeably different effect than plain alcohol. The high dose of thujone in this study was larger than what one can get from current "high thujone" absinthe before becoming too drunk to notice, also, as most people describe the effects of absinthe as a more lucid and aware drunk, this suggests that thujone alone is not the cause of these effects.
The non-French spelling, "absinth" has been adopted for wormwood-based drinks produced in Central Europe since the beginning of the 1990s (it is now also considered a spelling variant). Although not always the case, these products bear very little resemblance to the traditional French and Swiss absinthe: they are usually bitter and contain little anise, but are marketed to capitalize on the romantic associations and psychoactive reputation of the historical French product. Typically, the low herbal content of these drinks means that they do not produce the louche effect, and as thujone is still associated with the myth of absinthe as a psychoactive drink, many of them advertise a "higher thujone content".
Yakugaku Zasshi. 2004 Jul;124(7):417-24. Related Articles, Links
Search for constituents with neurotrophic factor-potentiating activity from the medicinal plants of paraguay and Thailand.
Li Y, Ohizumi Y.
Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan. firstname.lastname@example.org
20 medicinal plants of Paraguay and 3 medicinal plants of Thailand were examined on nerve growth factor (NGF)-potentiating activities in PC12D cells. The trail results demonstrated that the methanol extracts of four plants, Verbena littoralis, Scoparia dulcis, Artemisia absinthium and Garcinia xanthochymus, markedly enhanced the neurite outgrowth induced by NGF from PC12D cells. ...... These substances may contribute to the basic study and the medicinal development for the neurodegenerative disorder.
Forensic Sci Int. 2005 May 13;
Thujone-Cause of absinthism?
Lachenmeier DW, Emmert J, Kuballa T, Sartor G.
Chemisches und Veterinaruntersuchungsamt (CVUA) Karlsruhe, Weissenburger Str. 3, D-76187 Karlsruhe, Germany.
Habitual abuse of the wormwood spirit absinthe was described in the 19th and 20th centuries as a cause for the mental disorder "absinthism" including the symptoms hallucinations, sleeplessness and convulsions. A controversial discussion is going on if thujone, a characteristic component of the essential oil of the wormwood plant Artemisia absinthium L., is responsible for absinthism, or if it was merely caused by chronic alcohol intoxication or by other reasons such as food adulterations. To ascertain if thujone may have caused absinthism, absinthes were produced according to historic recipes of the 19th century. Commercial wormwood herbs of two different manufacturers, as well as self-cultivated ones, were used in a concentration of 6kg/100l spirit. In addition, an authentic vintage Pernod absinthe from Tarragona (1930), and two absinthes from traditional small distilleries of the Swiss Val-de-Travers were evaluated. A GC-MS procedure was applied for the analysis of alpha- and beta-thujone with cyclodecanone as internal standard. The method was shown to be sensitive with a LOD of 0.08mg/l. The precision was between 1.6 and 2.3%, linearity was obtained from 0.1 to 40mg/l (r=1.000). After the recent annulment of the absinthe prohibition all analysed products showed a thujone concentration below the maximum limit of 35mg/l, including the absinthes produced according to historic recipes, which did not contain any detectable or only relatively low concentrations of thujone (mean: 1.3+/-1.6mg/l, range: 0-4.3mg/l). Interestingly, the vintage absinthe also showed a relatively low thujone concentration of 1.8mg/l. The Val-de-Travers absinthes contained 9.4 and 1.7mg/l of thujone. In conclusion, thujone concentrations as high as 260mg/l, reported in the 19th century, cannot be confirmed by our study. With regard to their thujone concentrations, the hallucinogenic potential of vintage absinthes can be assessed being rather low because the historic products also comply with today's maximum limits derived to exclude such effects. It may be deduced that thujone plays none, or only a minor role in the clinical picture of absinthism
Planta Med. 2003 Feb;69(2):158-61.
Composition and antimicrobial activity of the essential oil of Artemisia absinthium from Croatia and France.
Juteau F, Jerkovic I, Masotti V, Milos M, Mastelic J, Bessiere JM, Viano J.
The essential oils obtained by steam distillation from the aerial parts of two populations of Artemisia absinthium, from France and from Croatia, were analyzed by GC and GC-MS. The oils of A. absinthium of French origin contain (Z)-epoxyocimene and chrysanthenyl acetate as major components while the oils of Croatian A. absinthium contain mainly (Z)-epoxyocimene and beta-thujone. Analysis of oils before and after anthesis showed some quantitative differences. Analysis of separated leaves and flowering heads showed only few differences among these organs. As they contain no thujone, antimicrobial screening was performed on samples of French origin and showed that A. absinthium oil inhibited the growth of both tested yeasts (Candida albicans and Saccharomyces cerevisiae var. chevalieri).
J Econ Entomol. 2001 Feb;94(1):167-71.
Acaricidal properties of Artemisia absinthium and Tanacetum vulgare (Asteraceae) essential oils obtained by three methods of extraction.
Chiasson H, Belanger A, Bostanian N, Vincent C, Poliquin A.
Urgel Delisle et Associes, Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu, QC, Canada.
Essential oils of Artemisia absinthium L. and Tanacetum vulgare L. were extracted by three methods, a microwave assisted process (MAP), distillation in water (DW) and direct steam distillation (DSD), and tested for their relative toxicity as contact acaricides to the two spotted spider mite, Tetranychus urticae Koch. All three extracts of A. absinthium and of T. vulgare were lethal to the spider mite but to variable degrees. The LC50 obtained from the DSD oil of A. absinthium was significantly lower (0.04 mg/cm2) than that of the MAP (0.13 mg/cm2) and DW (0.13 mg/cm2) oil of this plant species. DSD and DW extracts of T. vulgare were more toxic (75.6 and 60.4% mite mortality, respectively, at 4% concentration) to the spider mite than the MAP extract (16.7% mite mortality at 4% concentration). Chromatographic analysis indicated differences in composition between the more toxic DSD oil of A. absinthium and the other two extracts of this plant, indicating that a sesquiterpene (C15H24) compound present in the DSD oil and absent in the other two may enhance the toxicity of the DSD oil. Chemical analysis of the T. vulgare extracts indicated that beta-thujone is by far the major compound of the oil (>87.6%) and probably contributes significantly to the acaricidal activity of the oil.
J Ethnopharmacol. 2000 Feb;69(2):105-14.
CNS acetylcholine receptor activity in European medicinal plants traditionally used to improve failing memory.
Wake G, Court J, Pickering A, Lewis R, Wilkins R, Perry E.
Medicinal Plant Research Centre, Department of Agricultural and Environmental Science, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. email@example.com
Certain Lamiaceous and Asteraceous plants have long histories of use as restoratives of lost or declining cognitive functions in western European systems of traditional medicine. Investigations were carried out to evaluate human CNS cholinergic receptor binding activity in extracts of those European medicinal plants reputed to enhance or restore mental functions including memory. Ethanolic extracts were prepared from accessions of these plants and a number of other species related by genus. Amongst the plant extracts screened for contents able to displace [3H]-(N)-nicotine and [3H]-(N)-scopolamine from nicotinic receptors and muscarinic receptors, respectively in homogenates of human cerebral cortical cell membranes, the most potent extracts, prepared from one accession of Melissa officinalis, three Salvia species and Artemisia absinthium had IC50 concentrations of < 1 mg/ml. The displacement curves of some extracts were comparable with that of carbamylcholine chloride, a potent acetylcholine analogue. Choline, a weak nicotinic ligand (IC50 = 3 x 10(-4) M) was found in extracts of all plants studied at concentrations of 10(-6)-10(-5) M. These concentrations could not account for not more than 5% of the displacement activity observed. Some extracts displayed differential displacement at nicotinic and muscarinic acetylcholine receptors, with M. officinalis 0033 having the highest [3H]-(N)-nicotine displacement value and Salvia elegans with the highest [3H]-(N)-scopolamine displacement value. There was also considerable variation in cholinoreceptor interactions between different accessions of a single plant species. Although most plant extracts screened showed some nicotinic and muscarinic activity, only some showed dose-dependent receptor activity typical of materials with genuine cholinergic activity.