Modern insights into ancient drugs

Taste perception could help predict the medicinal properties of ancient Graeco-Roman botanical drugs.

Titlepage to 'Materia Medica'. Image credit: Wellcome Collection gallery (CC BY 4.0)

In ancient times people used trial and error to identify medicinal plants as being effective. Later, diseases were believed to arise from imbalances in body fluids (or ‘humours’), and botanical drugs were thought to restore this balance through the power of their taste. Modern science rejects this theory but does recognise the importance of chemosensation – our sensitivity to chemicals through taste and smell. These senses evolved in humans to help us seek out nutrients and avoid toxins and may also have guided the ancient uses of botanical drugs.

There are many records of historical medicinal plant use and ailments, which makes it possible to explore possible relationships between therapeutic uses of botanical drugs and their chemosensory qualities. To investigate if therapeutic uses of botanical drugs could indeed be predicted by taste and flavour, Leonti, Baker et al. collected 700 botanical drugs identified in an ancient text, named De Materia Medica, which dates back to the 1st century CE.

The researchers asked volunteer tasters to classify the botanical drugs using 22 taste descriptions, such as bitter, aromatic, burning/hot, and fresh/cooling. The volunteers were also asked to score the strength of these tastes. Leonti, Baker et al. then used statistical modelling to see if the participant’s taste descriptions could be used to predict the therapeutic uses of the drugs identified in the ancient text.

This revealed that of the 46 therapeutic indications described in the text, 45 showed significant associations with at least one taste quality. Botanical drugs with stronger and simpler tastes tended to be used for a wider range of therapeutic indications. This suggests that chemosensation influenced therapeutic expectations in ancient, prescientific medicine.

The study of Leonti, Baker et al. brings ancient medicine to life, offering valuable insights into the chemosensory aspects of medicinal plants and their potential applications in modern medicine. A next step would be to explore whether these insights could have relevance to modern science.