I love lab stains. Lab stains are incredible colours. Completely unapologetic and vibrant. Fabulous for making your lab coat look like you actually spend time in the lab getting work done. I can get really sappy and poetic about the beauty of lab stains. I even wrote a guided imagery piece for a psychology class that, if you were to read it, would make you believe lab stains were some kind of serotonergic happy drug.
What is amazing is that lab stains have been used as nootropic drugs! Fancy that! So all this time I’m playing with chemicals… I come home with malachite green freckles, methylene blue dipped hair, carbol fuschin nails, and safranin shoes, etc. Then I wonder how long before I get cancer or something from all this lovely stuff. Turns out methylene blue could actually be a useful chemical for my brain!
Now Robb Wolf had Jesse Lawler from SmartDrugSmarts.com on his podcast not too long ago. This happened to coincide with the mention of nootropics in one of the talks at the Southwest Conference on Botanical Medicine. So being curious, my friend and I naturally went to Jesse’s website and stumbled across methylene blue. I was so shocked I ran to the lab to check the hazard symbols on the bottle of methylene blue (there weren’t any toxicity warnings – although obviously this lab grade methylene blue is not approved for human consumption).
I could spend days reading articles on methylene blue. It truly has some amazing clinical potential. And yes, this reveals my ignorance on the chemical – since it’s been used clinically for a mere gazillion years [For a review, see 1]. However, its newer role in dealing with everything brain is pretty cool.
Methylene blue has quite a few actions in the human body, both positive and negative. Some of the negatives include effects on the thyroid, teratogenic effects, and potentially increasing cancer risk with long-term use [1, 2]. Considering just the brain, it affects cholinergic, glutamatergic and monoaminergic systems and has been considered in the context of psychosis and depression . Its ability to raise acetylcholine concentrations (by inhibiting cholinesterase enzymes and inhibiting breakdown of precursors), prevent toxic plaque formation, inhibit caspases in the brain and target Tau proteins in neurofibrillary tangles (amongst other actions) make methylene blue of interest in treating patients with Alzheimer’s disease [1, 2]. It will be interesting to see how and in which cases methylene blue will be used or effective for this condition over the next few years.
It also appears to have beneficial effects in learning and memory via cytochrome oxidase . On the topic of learning and memory there was an interesting study on the use of methylene blue in fear extinction sessions for adults with claustrophobia. The outcome of this study was that methylene blue led to a reinforcement of the phobia if the extinction trial was ineffective, but would help to retain the benefits of a successful extinction trial . What this means is that methylene blue could potentially help reinforce things that we experience!
I apologize to the authors of this study if I butcher the interpretation of these results, but it makes me consider this as a simpler analogy. Basically, if you are trying to learn a song on the piano and you keep hitting a wrong note, you are reinforcing the wrong note. If you hit a wrong note, and then go back and play it again very carefully over and over until you’ve done it correctly several times, you will reinforce the correct sequence of notes. In the first case methylene blue, theoretically, would reinforce the wrong note even more. In the second case it would enhance your memory of the correct notes. Consider the options for enhancing your learning of a new song: methylene blue or a sharp rap with a ruler over the knuckles :D
On a final note, one more interesting feature of methylene blue is that it has a hermetic dose-response curve. So its beneficial effects are best seen at low doses, while higher doses give opposite, and detrimental effects .
Methylene blue is certainly not a new drug, but its cognitive effects were a surprise and are really fascinating to me.
Disclaimer: I am not advocating the ingestion of lab grade methylene blue. I am also not advocating the ingestion of pharmaceutical grade methylene blue. I am 100% not a doctor.
Telch MJ, Bruchey AK, Rosenfield D, et al. Effects of post-session administration of methylene blue on fear extinction and contextual memory in adults with claustrophobia. Am J Psychiatry. 2014;171(10):1091-8.