The Memory of Water
April 22, 3005
Subject: A new study on homeopathic dilutions by a former skeptic provides further evidence that we don't know everything and that homeopathic dilutions do have physiologic effect.
Any rational person when explained the details of homeopathic medicine should express doubt.
Recall what homeopathy is: A system of medicine developed by a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700 and early 1800's in which medicines are selected based on a Law of Similars and prescribed in minimal doses. Hahnemann's Law of Similars dictates that materials used in medicines are selected if administration of the substance causes symptoms similar to the symptoms of the person being treated. In other words, if someone has watery eyes, you might select onion juice as the material to make the medicine from. This is opposite of how we select most medicines; doctors typically select a drug which causes the opposite symptom to occur in the hope of counteracting the problem.
As unusual as this may sound it is nothing compared to the problem of how the medicines are made. Once a medicinal material is selected that mimics the symptoms, it is diluted in a serial fashion until the original medicinal material is almost or actually nonexistent in the dilution. The diluted solution with nothing in it is used as the medicine. This is why seemingly toxic materials are commonly seen used as homeopathic medicines. There is nothing there to hurt you. But is there anything there to help you? This process of dilution to extinction which is the prime characteristic of homeopathic medicines, makes the whole thing seem so absurd. If nothing is there how can it do anything?
This is absurd and anyone with half a brain should see that. Yet homeopathic medicines have been and are still used all over the world. Homeopathic medicines are sold in most pharmacies in the United States , certainly most health food stores, and are in common everyday medical use in Europe , India and other countries. We have used homeopathic medicines in treating patients for fifteen years and I admit that I've seen them produce astounding results yet still find myself a little surprised when they work.
I bring these thoughts up today because of a recent study published in the journal, Inflammation Research.
This study is notable because the principal researcher, Madeleine Ennis, a pharmacologist at Queen's University, Belfast has long been the scourge of homeopathy. She has been a major and very vocal critic of all things homeopathic particularly of several recent studies. That this long time skeptic is the author of this study makes it all the more interesting.
In her paper, Ennis describes how her team looked at the effects of ultra-dilute solutions of histamine on human white blood cells involved in inflammation. These "basophils" release histamine when the cells are under attack. Once released, the histamine stops them releasing any more. The study, replicated in four different labs, found that homeopathic solutions - so dilute that they probably didn't contain a single histamine molecule - worked just like histamine did. Ennis might not be happy with the homeopaths' claims, but she admits that an effect cannot be ruled out.
Homeopaths claim that in preparing their medicines that however dilute the solution becomes, it is still imbued with the properties of the medicinal material.
This Belfast study (Inflammation Research , vol 53, p 181) suggests that something is going on. "We are," Ennis says in her paper, "unable to explain our findings and are reporting them to encourage others to investigate this phenomenon." If the results turn out to be real, she says, the implications are profound: we may have to rewrite physics and chemistry.
Ennis' quote reminds me of the editorial from more than a decade ago when the Lancet published David Reilly's double blind, placebo controlled trial of homeopathic pollen dilutions on allergy sufferers. Reilly's work had demonstrated that extreme dilutions of pollen, which had not a single molecule of pollen left in the medicine, still had an effect on patients. The editors of the Lancet wrote an editorial when they published the article which said in part, “ Either there is something amiss with the clinical trial as conventionally conducted, (theirs was done with exceptional rigour), or the effects of homoeopathic immunotherapy differ from those of placebo.” [Editorial: Anon. Reilly's challenge. Lancet 1994;344:1585 ]
Does water have a memory?
Any or almost any scientist will tell you the idea that water remembers what was dissolved in it after the substance is gone, is ridiculous. Not all scientists will.
A 2003 paper published in the journal Physica A argues that water may have a memory. The authors claim that even though they should be identical, the structure of hydrogen bonds in pure water is different from that in homeopathic dilutions of salt solutions.
The paper's author, Swiss chemist Louis Rey, is using thermoluminescence to study the structure of solids. The technique involves bathing a chilled sample with radiation. When the sample is warmed up, the stored energy is released as light in a pattern that reflects the atomic structure of the sample.
Rey tested the idea, suggested by other researchers, that ice chilled to 170 K emits a peak of light that reflects the pattern of hydrogen bonds within the ice. In his experiments he used heavy water (which contains the heavy hydrogen isotope deuterium), because it has stronger hydrogen bonds than normal water. After studying pure samples, Rey looked at solutions of lithium chloride and sodium chloride. Lithium chloride destroys hydrogen bonds, as does sodium chloride, but to a lesser extent. Sure enough, the peak was smaller for a solution of sodium chloride, and disappeared completely for a lithium chloride solution.
Aware of homeopaths' claims that patterns of hydrogen bonds can survive successive dilutions, Rey decided to test samples that had been diluted down to a notional 10 -30 grams per cubic centimeter - way beyond the point when any ions of the original substance could remain. "We thought it would be of interest to challenge the theory," he says. Each dilution was made according to a strict protocol, and vigorously stirred at each stage, as homeopaths do.
When Rey compared the ultra-dilute lithium and sodium chloride solutions with pure water that had been through the same process, the difference in their thermoluminescence peaks compared with pure water was still there. "Much to our surprise, the thermoluminescence glows of the three systems were substantially different," he says. He believes the result proves that the networks of hydrogen bonds in the samples were different.
Proving that water has memory will be a big step toward understanding how something as implausible as homeopathy can work.
Let's forget homeopathy for a second. Take a moment to simply marvel at this idea that water has a memory. How long a memory? For what sort of things?
Who knows? Certainly if nothing else, thinking about this makes the world a much more interesting place.