Orgasm-inducing mushrooms? Not quite

Claims that there is an orgasm-inducing mushroom in Hawaii may not be entirely accurate. Drawing and licensing unknown.
Claims that there is an orgasm-inducing mushroom in Hawaii may not be entirely accurate. Author and licensing of the above drawing unknown.

A few weeks ago, the social media has bombarded us with the eye-catching news that there is a mushroom in Hawaii whose smell induces spontaneous orgasms in women, but not men, who found its smell repugnant.

Except that it appears there is no such mushroom. Turns out the 14 year old paper is written by the president of a Hawaiian company that sells organic medicinal mushrooms. Not only written, but funded, as well. This is enough to damn the credibility of any study (that’s why scientists must declare competing interest when submitting a paper). But it also seems that the study has major fundamental flaws, like not having a single objective measure (of the quantity of spores, for example), is done under non-controlled environmental conditions (the participants seem to have known what was expected from them), there have been no replications, etc. Actually, it should have been suspicious to me from the start that nothing happened in the following 14 years; you would think that such claims would have been replicated, or at least the mushroom identified. But, as they say, hindsight is 20-20. Here is some nice little reporting exposing the business in Huffington Post and ScienceAlert.

I am not blaming the science media outlets on this one, like IFL Science or NBC affiliate, as I thought of covering this study myself, should I have been able to get my hands on the full text of the paper. In all honesty, who wouldn’t want to read that paper, especially since the abstract speculated on the mushroom’s spores having hormone-like chemicals that mimic the human neurotransmitters released during sexual encounters? But I (and others) have searched in vain for the full text and the most parsimonious explanation is that it was buried or withdrawn.

The trite but true message is: even the science media (including this one) is prone to mistakes. Interested in something? Go to the source and read the whole paper yourself, even the small print (like the one with competing interests), and only then make an opinion. That’s why I always post the links to the original article.

Reference: Holliday, J.C. & Soule, N. (2001). Spontaneous Female Orgasms Triggered by Smell of a Newly Found Tropical Dictyphora Species. International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, 3: 162-167. Abstract | Debunking in The Journal of Wild Mushrooming | Debunking in Discover Magazine

By Neuronicus, 17 October 2015

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Nettles are good for you in more ways than one

Urtica Urens (the small nettle). Photo by H. Zell, released under CC BY-SA 3.0. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Urtica Urens (the small nettle). Photo by H. Zell, released under CC BY-SA 3.0. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Many cultures, specially East-European and North-African, use nettles in their cuisine, as soups, creams, or teas. Nettles’ taste resemble spinach. Now Doukkali et al. (2015) discovered a new use for the plant.

The authors harvested Urtica urens from north Morocco, dried the plants, and prepared a methanolic extract (see p. 2 for the procedure. Don’t drink methanol!). Then, they gave the extract in 3 different doses to mice and assessed its effects in two anxiety and one locomotor test against saline (the control) and diazepam (Valium), a powerful anxiolytic from the benzodiazepine class. Like diazepam, the plant extract had anxiolytic properties, but unlike diazepam, it did not induce any locomotor effects. And this is where the big thing is: ALL benzos on the market have significant side effects in the form of drowsiness, impaired coordination, sedation and so on. Having an anxiolytic without motor impairment would be wonderful.

This is a short, simple to read paper, clearly written, and covers some classic aspects of new drug discovery (like dose-response and lethal dose assessment). The reasons why I think it did not make it to one of the big journals is the small sample size, the relatively moderate effect, and the lack of identifying the active compound (there are virtually no straight-forward behavioral studies published in Nature or Science any more; you’ve got to have the molecules, or proteins, or cells, or what-have-yous as proof that you mean hard-science business).

Or, the fact that it does not have any graphs, all data is presented in tables, which I personally enjoy, as it is oh so easy to manipulate with a graph; and the fancier looking the image, the better chances few people get it anyway. Give me tables with standard deviation any day, as I suspect is the position of the authors of the paper too. But, for the visually inclined, I made a Fig. with some of their data, took only 15 minutes in Excel.

Fig. 1. The effect of saline (S), diazepam (D), and nettle extract (N) on the light-dark test (left) and hole board test (right). Data from Doukkali et al. (2015) , graph by Neuronicus.
Fig. 1. The effect of saline (S), diazepam (D), and nettle extract (N) on the light-dark test (left) and hole board test (right). Data from Doukkali et al. (2015) , graph by Neuronicus.

Or, not to put a too fine point to it, the authors are from Morocco, so they don’t come shrouded in the A-list universities glamour. In any case, the next obvious step is to isolate the active compound and replicate its anxiolytic effects on other tests and other species.

Reference: Doukkali Z, Taghzouti K, Bouidida EL, Nadjmouddine M, Cherrah Y, & Alaoui K. (24 April 2015). Evaluation of anxiolytic activity of methanolic extract of Urtica urens in a mice model. Behavioral and Brain Functions, 11(19): 1-5. doi: 10.1186/s12993-015-0063-y. Article | FREE PDF

By Neuronicus, 16 October 2015