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Thujone (Listeni//) is a ketone and a monoterpene that occurs naturally in two diastereomeric forms: (−)-α-thujone and (+)-β-thujone. It has a menthol odor. Even though it is best known as a chemical compound in the spirit absinthe, recent studies reveal that absinthe contains only small quantities of thujone, and therefore it is unlikely that thujone is responsible for absinthe's alleged psychedelic effects. Thujone acts on GABA and 5-HT3 receptors in the brain. In many countries the amount of thujone allowed in food or drink products is regulated. Thujone, as a component of several essential oils, is also used in perfumery.
In addition to the naturally occurring (−)-α-thujone and (+)-β-thujone, there are two other enantiomeric forms possible; (+)-α-thujone and (−)-β-thujone:
Thujone is found in a number of plants, such as arborvitae (genus Thuja, hence the derivation of the name), Nootka Cypress, some junipers, mugwort, oregano, common sage, tansy, and wormwood, most notably grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), usually as a mix of isomers in a 1:2 ratio. It is also found in various species of mentha (mint).
Based on studies that looked only at molecular shape, for many years thujone was thought to act similarly to THC on the cannabinoid receptors; however, this has since been proven false. Thujone is a GABAA receptor antagonist. By inhibiting GABA receptor activation, neurons may fire more easily, which can cause muscle spasms and convulsions. Thujone is also a 5-HT3 antagonist.
The median lethal dose, or LD50, of alpha-thujone, the more active of the two isomers, in mice is around 45 mg/kg, with 0% mortality rate at 30 mg/kg and 100% at 60 mg/kg. Mice exposed to the higher dose have convulsions that lead to death within 1 minute. From 30 to 45 mg/kg, the mice experience muscle spasms in the legs, which progress to general convulsions until death or recovery. Pretreatment with diazepam, phenobarbital or 1 g/kg of ethanol protects against a lethal dose of 100 mg/kg. These effects are in line with other GABA antagonists. It has also been found that alpha-thujone is metabolized quickly in the liver in mice.
Attention performance has been tested with low and high doses of thujone in alcohol. The high dose had a short term negative effect on attention performance. The lower dose showed no noticeable effect.
Thujone is reported to be toxic to brain, kidney and liver cells and could cause convulsions if used in too high a dose. Other thujone-containing plants such as the tree Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) are used in herbal medicine, mainly for their immune-system stimulating effects. Side-effects from the essential oil of this plant include anxiety and sleeplessness, which confirms the central nervous system effects of thujone.
Thujone is most famous for being a compound in the spirit absinthe. In the past it was thought that absinthe contained up to 260–350 mg/L thujone, but modern tests have shown this to be far too high. A 2008 study of 13 pre-ban (1895–1910) bottles using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) found that the bottles had between 0.5 mg/L and 48.3 mg/L and averaged 25.4 mg/L  A 2005 study recreated three 1899 high-wormwood recipes and tested with GC-MS, and found that the highest contained 4.3 mg/L thujone. GC-MS testing is important in this capacity, because gas chromatography alone may record an inaccurately high reading of thujone as other compounds may interfere with and add to the apparent measured amount.
The compound was discovered after absinthe became popular in the mid-19th century. Dr. Valentin Magnan, who studied alcoholism, tested pure wormwood oil on animals and discovered it caused seizures independent from the effects of alcohol. Based on this, it was assumed that absinthe, which contains a small amount of wormwood oil, was more dangerous than ordinary alcohol. Eventually thujone was isolated as the cause of these reactions. Magnan went on to study 250 abusers of alcohol and noted that those who drank absinthe had seizures and hallucinations. In light of modern evidence, these conclusions are questionable, as they are based on a poor understanding of other compounds and diseases, and clouded by Magnan's belief that alcohol and absinthe were "degenerating" the French race.
After absinthe was banned, research dropped off until the 1970s when the British scientific journal Nature published an article comparing the molecular shape of thujone to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive substance found in cannabis (marijuana), and hypothesized it would act the same way on the brain, sparking the myth that thujone was a cannabinoid.
More recently, following European Council Directive No. 88/388/EEC (1988) allowing certain levels of thujone in foodstuffs in the EU, the studies described above were conducted and found only minute levels of thujone in absinthe.
- 0.5 mg/kg in food prepared with Artemisia species, excluding those prepared with sage and non alcoholic beverages.
- 10 mg/kg in alcoholic beverages not prepared with Artemisia species.
- 25 mg/kg in food prepared with sage.
- 35 mg/kg in alcoholic beverages prepared with Artemisia species.
In the United States, the addition of pure thujone to foods is not permitted. Foods or beverages that contain Artemisia species, white cedar, oak moss, tansy or yarrow must be thujone-free. Other herbs that contain thujone have no restrictions. For example, sage and sage oil (which can be up to 50% thujone) are on the Food and Drug Administration's list of GRAS (generally recognized as safe) substances.
Absinthe offered for sale in the United States must be "thujone-free", which is interpreted as containing less than 10 mg/L. Absinthe with small amounts of thujone therefore can be legally imported.
In Canada, liquor laws are the domain of the provincial governments. Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia allow 10 mg/kg thujone; Quebec allows 15 mg per kg; Manitoba allows 6–8 mg thujone per litre; British Columbia adheres to the same levels as Ontario and all other provinces do not allow the sale of absinthe containing thujone. However, in Saskatchewan and Quebec, one can purchase any liquor available in the world upon the purchase of a maximum of one case, usually twelve 750 mL bottles or 9 L. The individual liquor boards must approve each product before it may be sold on shelves.
- Piołunówka – Polish alcoholic preparation with thujone content higher than in absinthe.
- Derived from the Ancient Greek θυία, thuj(a), a kind of cedar + -ωνη, -one, feminine patronymic for a chemical relative of acetone
- Perry NB, Anderson RE, Brennan NJ, Douglas MH, Heaney AJ, McGimpsey JA, Smallfield BM (1999). "Essential Oils from Dalmatian Sage (Salvia officinalis L.): Variations among Individuals, Plant Parts, Seasons, and Sites". J. Agric. Food Chem. 47 (5): 2048–2054. PMID 10552494. doi:10.1021/jf981170m.
- Oppolzer W, Pimm A, Stammen B, Hume WE (1997). "Palladium-Catalysed Intramolecular Cyclisations of Olefinic Propargylic Carbonates and application to the diastereoselective synthesis of enantiomerically pure (−)-α-thujone". Helv. Chim. Acta 80 (3): 623–639. doi:10.1002/hlca.19970800302.
- Deiml T, Haseneder R, Zieglgänsberger W, Rammes G, Eisensamer B, Rupprecht R, Hapfelmeier G (Feb 2004). "Alpha-thujone reduces 5-HT3 receptor activity by an effect on the agonist-reduced desensitization". Neuropharmacology 46 (2): 192–201. PMID 15002407. doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2003.09.022.
- Conrad III, Barnaby; (1988). Absinthe: History in a Bottle. Chronicle Books. ISBN 0-8118-1650-8 p. 152
- Meschler JP, Howlett AC (March 1999). "Thujone exhibits low affinity for cannabinoid receptors but fails to evoke cannabimimetic responses". Pharmacol. Biochem. Behav. 62 (3): 473–80. PMID 10080239. doi:10.1016/S0091-3057(98)00195-6.
- Olsen RW (April 2000). "Absinthe and gamma-aminobutyric acid receptors". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 97 (9): 4417–8. PMC 34311. PMID 10781032. doi:10.1073/pnas.97.9.4417.
- Höld KM, Sirisoma NS, Ikeda T, Narahashi T, Casida JE (April 2000). "Alpha-thujone (the active component of absinthe): gamma-aminobutyric acid type A receptor modulation and metabolic detoxification". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 97 (8): 3826–31. PMC 18101. PMID 10725394. doi:10.1073/pnas.070042397.
- Modulation of Ionotropic GABA Receptors by Natural Products of Plant Origin
- Dettling A, Grass H, Schuff A, Skopp G, Strohbeck-Kuehner P, Haffner HT (2004). "Absinthe: attention performance and mood under the influence of thujone". J. Stud. Alcohol 65 (5): 573–81. PMID 15536765.
- Naser B, Bodinet C, Tegtmeier M, Lindequist U. Thuja occidentalis (Arbor vitae): A Review of its Pharmaceutical, Pharmacological and Clinical Properties. Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2005 Mar;2(1):69–78.
- Absinthism: a fictitious 19th-century syndrome with present impact, Padosch et al. Retrieved Oct. 28, 2006.
- Absinthe Myths Finally Laid To Rest
- Chemical Composition of Vintage Preban Absinthe with Special Reference to Thujone, Fenchone, Pinocamphone, Methanol, Copper, and Antimony Concentrations
- Thujone—Cause of absinthism? Lachenmeier, Emmert et al. Retrieved Oct. 28, 2006.
- Determination of a-/b-Thujone and Related Terpenes in Absinthe using Solid Phase Extraction and Gas Chromatography, Emmert et al. Retrieved Oct. 28, 2006.
- Conrad III, Barnaby; (1988). Absinthe: History in a Bottle. Chronicle books. ISBN 0-8118-1650-8 Pg. 101-105
- Del Castillo J., Anderson M., Rubottom G.M. (1975). "Letters to Nature: Marijuana, absinthe and the central nervous system". Nature 253 (5490): 365–366. doi:10.1038/253365a0.
- European Council Directive No. 88/388/EEC, 22 June 1988.
- Regulation (EC) No 1334/2008 of the European Parliament and Council of 16 December 2008, European Commission.
- Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Food on Thujone Scientific Committee on Food (2003) Retrieved Oct 28, 2006.
- Laurie C. Dolan, Ray A. Matulka, and George A. Burdock (2010). "Naturally Occurring Food Toxins". Toxins 2 (9): 2289–2332. PMC 3153292. doi:10.3390/toxins2092289.
- FDA Regulation 21 CFR 172.510 – Food Additives Permitted for Direct Addition to Food for Human Consumption. Food and Drug Administration (2003). Retrieved Oct 28, 2006.
- Substances generally recognized as safe. Food and Drug Administration (2003). Retrieved Oct 28, 2006.
- Department of the Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau Industry Circular 2007-5 October 17, 2007. Retrieved May 5, 2009
- Lachenmeier DW, Nathan-Maister D, Breaux TA, Sohnius EM, Schoeberl K, Kuballa T (May 2008). "Chemical composition of vintage preban absinthe with special reference to thujone, fenchone, pinocamphone, methanol, copper, and antimony concentrations". J. Agric. Food Chem. 56 (9): 3073–81. PMID 18419128. doi:10.1021/jf703568f.
- Absinthe absolved, Cern Courier, July 8, 2008
- Thujone.Info — Databank of peer reviewed articles on thujone, absinthe, absinthism, and independent thujone ratings of some commercial brands.
- The Shaky History of Thujone – Wormwood Society article on thujone and its history.