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Odysseus’ Snowdrop Odyssey

From Odysseus' crew to Alzheimer's patients, the snowdrop flower has been long used for its healing properties.

Circe was the sorceress in Greek mythology who drugged Odysseus’ crew to make them forget their homeland, then proceeded to turn the men into swine. When Odysseus set out to rescue his crew, he protected himself with an antidote derived from the snowdrop flower. Myths often have some basis in fact as this same antidote is being studied today as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

The ancient Greeks knew that an extract of the Datura stramonium plant, known today as thorn apple or jimsonweed, has the ability to rob people of their memories and cast them into a hallucinatory state, sometimes accompanied by delusions of being turned into animals. The active ingredient in datura is atropine, which has the effect of blocking the action of an important neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine. Neurotransmitters are molecules that transmit information from one nerve cell to another and are responsible for effects ranging from controlling the heartbeat to the retention of memory. Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by a deficiency of acetylcholine, and progress of the disease can potentially be slowed by drugs that increase the levels of acetylcholine in the brain. One way to do this is by blocking the action of an enzyme known as acetylcholinesterase, which breaks down acetylcholine. As it turns out, the snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, contains a natural acetylcholinesterase inhibitor known as galantamine.

This is what Hermes, the messenger of the gods, advised Odysseus to use to protect himself from Circe’s drug-enhanced sorcery. And this is what peasants in the Balkan countries have used for centuries to treat themselves for various “nerve” problems. In the 1950s, Dimitar Paskov, a Bulgarian chemist became interested in this folklore and alerted the medical community. Eventually, galantamine was isolated and tested in Alzheimer’s patients. The results were not miraculous, but there was a definite slowing of decline, and in some cases, even improvement in cognition. Isolation from snowdrops proved to be difficult and the yield was low. Researchers, however, discovered that the common daffodil provides an excellent source of galantamine, and chemists have also found a way to synthesize the compound in the lab. This, then, allowed galantamine to be extensively tested and paved the way for its appearance as Reminyl in the prescription marketplace. The name was eventually changed to Razadyne, following the deaths of two people who had been mistakenly given a diabetes medication, Amaryl (glimepiride), instead of Reminyl.

A side effect of galantamine is the inducement of lucid dreams which has stimulated interest in the use of galantamine as a recreational drug. Marketers have taken advantage of this and now offer galantamine as “lucid dreams, memory support.” Galantamine is a prescription drug, but it is available without a prescription from online sellers. In the U.S., since it can be extracted from a natural source, galantamine can be sold as a dietary supplement. In either of these cases, you do not know exactly what you are getting. The product may or may not contain the dose stipulated on the label. It is a crapshoot.

When Hermes introduced Odysseus to the snowdrop, he referred to the plant as the “moly,” which just may be where our expression “holy moly” comes from.


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