Skeptical Fails and Wins This Week

Hey there skeptifans. Here are the media Fails and Wins you sent me this week.

Study suggests smelling rosemary aromas can boost brain performance

Art sent in this fail. Apparently smelling rosemary boosts your “brain performance”. What exactly does this mean? Well, the article won’t tell you. It only mentions researchers saw improvements on “speed and accuracy tests”. There is no critical assessment of the study, or explanation of exactly what results were seen. I couldn’t find a recent study that matched the description, but I found two previous papers from the same university that involve rosemary. There may be some genuine effects from aromatherapy, but with reporting like this it’s impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. These types of articles send people running to the store for expensive essential oils and supplements, without the evidence needed to make good choices.

Herbal stress relief? Try a walk instead

John sent in this win from the Globe and Mail. There are a number of herbal supplements on the market that claim to help you manage stress. But this article points out they are often unproven and carry risks. One thing that has been proven to help is a little exercise…and that’s free.

A Catholic teachers association looks to ban WiFi. What’s next? Coffee?
Lorne sent in this win regarding the ongoing wi-fi in schools debate. The article is a great take down of the claims that wi-fi fear mongerers make by comparing the actual risks to the risks of many other every day things. Why are the teachers not up in arms about microwaves? Or coffee?

Did you spot a media Fail or Win? Send it to me at

9 Responses to “Skeptical Fails and Wins This Week”

  1. Composer99 says:

    The following would be a good hard-and-fast rule for journalists doing science or related reporting (and their editors):

    If they are going to mention a study in the article, cite the damn study and whether it is published/in review/the like.

  2. lane simonian says:

    Rosmarinic acid (and other phenolic compounds in rosemary essential oil) inhibit phospholpase C gamma activity which lowers levels of acetylcholinesterases (which break down acetylcholine). Acetylcholine is a critical compound for short-term memory. Phospholipase C gamma (and phospholipase C beta) activity lead to the formation of amyloid plaques and peroxynitrites, and thus contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Moderate use of essential oils may thus provide some protection against the disease.

    Rosemary and a variety of other essential oils can also likely be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Jimbo and colleagues found that the use of rosemary essential oil (along with orange, lemon, and lavender essential oils) via aromatherapy produced significant improvements in cognitive function in 28 dementia patients (19 of them with Alzheimer’s disease) after 28 days of use. Rosmarinic acid scavenges peroxynitrites which are held to be the main cause of short-term memory in Alzheimer’s disease. Eugenol (another peroxynitrite scavenger) found in rosemary essential oil impeded the influx of calcium which kills neurons in Alzheimer’s disease. Look at the following titles, Alkam, “A natural scavenger of peroxynitrites, rosmarinic acid, protects against impairment of memory induced AB25-35″ and Irie, “Effects of eugenol on the Central Nervous System: Its possible application to treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and Parkinson’s disease.” To top it off, most bottles of essential oils cost around ten dollars. The world is full of skeptics for the sake of being skeptics, but spend the years needed to reach solid conclusions, and you stop being a skeptic.

    • Bryan says:

      There are a mere 7 studies (and 1 review) on Rosmarinic acid and alzheimer’s disease; none in the form of a clinical trial, nor any using models of spontaneous disease or large animals.

      In reality, all you can say about rosmarinic acid is that it has weak anti-oxidant activity in vitro, and has a very modest impact on memory retention in a transgenic mouse model of alzhimers disease. Hardly a home-run; in the case of the animal study, the effectiveness of rosmarinic acid was about 1/10th that observed in studies looking at conventional alzhimers therapies – i.e. cholinesterase inhibitors.

      That is a long ways away from a solid conclusion. Nor does it provide a plausible mechanism to explain the purported improvement of “brain function” shortly after sniffing some rosemary oil.

      Perhaps you shouldn’t have stopped being a sceptic…


  3. Bl says:

    Iane, I think you’re missing the point. Everything you’ve said may be perfectly true but you’ve provided no reason to believe it. All the sciency-sounding jargon in the world can not turn assertions into evidence. Can you provide some links or cite the journals or studies on which your assertions are based?

  4. Bl says:

    Iane, please ignore my last comment. After re-reading your post I think I was wrong to accuse you of not providing evidence. Sorry about that.

  5. lane simonian says:

    Rosemary essential oil may improve mental performance in healthy adults by increasing the binding of acetylcholine to its receptors and by decreasing acetylcholinesterase activity. I have only studied the effects of essential oils in healthy people in passing, so I can only suggest the mechanism by which the essential oil may work.

    On the other hand, I have been studying the effects of essential oils on Alzheimer’s patients for four years and know the mechanisms and the evidence quite well.

    There is one small-scale clinical trial using aromatherapy to treat Alzheimer’s disease: Jimbo, et al. “The effect of aromatherapy on patients with Alzheimer’s disease.” Akhondzadeh and colleagues ran clinical trials with tinctures of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and sage (Salvia officinalis) and N.S. Perry and colleagues ran a clinical trial using a different species of sage (Salvia lavandulaefolia) and saw similar improvements in cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients as did Jimbo and colleagues.

    The problem with Alzheimer’s disease is not with acetylcholinesterase activity. By the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease acetylcholinesterase activity has been reduced by 85%. That is why anti-cholinesterase drugs don’t work as the disease progresses (or to the extent that any of them do work it is as antioxidants). The main problem in Alzheimer’s disease is the formation of peroxynitrites. That is why peroxynitrite scavengers have protected against and ameliorated cognitive decline in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease (albeit small animals). These scavengers include rosmarinic acid, Ocimum sanctum (Holy Basil), alaternin from Cassia tora, hydroxchavicol from Piper betel, hesperitin, 2,3,6-tribromo-4,5-dihyroxybenzyl methyl ether from the marine alga Symphylocladia laiuscula, Bacopa monnieri (brahmi or water hyssop), Zataria multiflora Boiss. essential oil, and SuHeXiang Wan essential oil. Aromatherapy has also been sucessfully used in a number of care facilities for Alzheiemer’s patients (Potomac Homes in New Jersey, Ecumen in Minnesota, the East Carolina University study in the Carolinas, and the Texas State Research on Aromatherapy).

    I have been dealing with skeptics on this subject for a long time, and I have found that it does not matter how much evidence you present, they will find ways to reject all of it. Once you understand a disease, however, it is easier to treat it and all aspects of Alzheimer’s disease can be explained either as the direct or indirect result of peroxynitrite formation. Therefore, peroxynitrite scavengers (which can be found in a number of essential oils) can be used to treat the disease.

    • Bryan says:

      I have been dealing with skeptics on this subject for a long time, and I have found that it does not matter how much evidence you present, they will find ways to reject all of it

      I didn’t reject your evidence; I pointed out that it is inadequate to support your claims. My own research program extends into the area of Alzheimer’s (although it is not our major focus at this time). None of the studies you’ve provided, or I’ve uncovered, are sufficient to support your claims.

      Likewise, they hypothesis that peroxynitrate is the causative agent in alzhimers is quite controversial, especially now that protein nitrosylation is established as a normal component of cellular signalling process. Moreover, a couple of small double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trials using peroxynitrate scavengers have been conducted. They found no measurable benefit of such introversions.

  6. lane simonian says:

    I hadn’t seen your two comments before I posted my last comment. Thank you, BI.

  7. Lane Simonian says:

    As you correctly note, nitrosylation is not necessarily a negative event and its introversion does not necessarily convey benefits. However, nitrosylation of certain proteins may play a role in a number of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.

    One of the problems in Alzheimer’s disease is that peroxynitrites not only contribute to the hyperphosphorylation of tau proteins, but by nitrating these proteins it prevents them from being de-phosphorylated and reconstituted (Zhang, Peroxynitrites induces Alzheimer-like tau modifications and accumulation in rat brains and it underlying mechanisms). Some researchers believe that hyperphosphorylated tau proteins reduce neurotransmissions. The role of phenolic compounds (such as found in several essential oils) are known to inhibit nitration, but it has not been proven so far that they actually reverse nitration. The role of phenolic compounds as peroxynitrite scavengers and as antioxidants is much better understood.

    The best evidence that peroxynitrite scavengers can be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease is that each one used so far whether in mice or human beings has partially reversed the disease.


  • Melany Hamill

    Melany proudly uses the titles of both geek and nerd. As a science-enthusiast and fan of debate, Melany likes to get her facts straight. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in Chemical Engineering. Since then her career path has meandered to its current spot as a project manager at a video game studio. Melany lives near beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. She is not seeking treatment for her caffeine addiction.