English folklore advises slipping rosemary into the pocket of an errant lover to help them remember their vows, while Ophelia confirmed the herb is ‘for remembrance’ in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance: pray, love, remember.’
Now scientists have shown that the plant really is linked to better memory.
To test whether it had an impact on older people, the researchers randomly allocated 150 pensioners to a room scented with rosemary, lavender or no aroma. They were then asked to pass on a message at a given time during the procedure, and to swap tasks at a specific time, to test their memory.
Those in the rosemary room were found to perform far better on the memory tests than the other two.
It turns out that there are compounds in rosemary oil that may be responsible for changes in memory performance. One of them is called 1,8-cineole – as well as smelling wonderful (if you like that sort of thing) it may act in the same way as the drugs licensed to treat dementia, causing an increase in a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine.
These compounds do this by preventing the breakdown of the neurotransmitter by an enzyme. And this is highly plausible – inhalation is one of the best ways of getting drugs into the brain. When you eat a drug it may be broken down in the liver which processes everything absorbed by the gut, but with inhalation small molecules can pass into the bloodstream and from there to the brain without being broken down by the liver.
Dr. Mark Moss, head of the department of psychology at Northumbria, said:
“My working hypothesis is that when you inhale rosemary, its compounds are absorbed in the blood through the lungs and then are sent to the brain where they can actually act on your brain chemistry.”
Although the testing was very positive, more research needs to be done to determine whether smelling rosemary will improve memory for those who need it. However, unlike many medications, it will not hurt to try it out.