Myrrh: An Ancient Salve Dampens Pain

Science News, January 13, 1996 | Go to article overview

Myrrh: An Ancient Salve Dampens Pain


Apparently the three wise men displayed true wisdom when they made an offering of myrrh to the newborn Jesus.

Piero Dolara, a chemist at the University of Florence in Italy, and his colleagues find that secretions of the thorny, flowering shrub Commiphora-prized by ancient Mediterraneans for medicine, perfume, and embalming-indeed possess long-rumored analgesic properties.

The chemists gave a dose of myrrh to mice, then placed the animals on a hot metal plate, they explain in the Jan. 4 Nature. Mice without myrrh began licking their paws within 15 seconds, whereas mice dosed with myrrh showed no discomfort for 20 seconds.

Dolara's team proceeded to analyze the holy remedy, subjecting its oils, gums, and resins to chromatography, nuclear magnetic resonance, and mass spectrometry. They isolated three key compounds but found that only two-the sesquiterpenes known as furanoeudesma-1,3-diene and curzarene-produced analgesic effects in mice.

Further tests suggest that myrrh's active ingredients affect the brain's opioid receptors, long known to influence pain perception.

"This could explain the use of myrrh as a painkiller in ancient times," Dolara says. …

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