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`Water memory' theory revival boosts homeopathy

Pratap Ravindran

Pune , July 20

THE emergence of homoeopathic medicines as over-the-counter (OTC) products in India coincides with the presentation of a paper by Swiss chemist Dr Louis Rey. The paper, which is to be published in the reputed Physica A journal shortly, says even though they should be identical, the structure of hydrogen bonds in pure water is very different from that in homeopathic dilutions of salt solutions.

This view assumes significance in the context of the fact that scientists reject the theory that water retains a memory of substances dissolved in it — a theory central to homeopathy, the practitioners of which treat their patients with formulations so dilute that they may not contain even a single molecule of the active compound. In fact, the proposition that water has "memory" had cost one of France's top allergy researchers, Dr Jacques Benveniste, his funding and his reputation in 1988.

Dr Rey has now revived the "memory of water" theory with his findings based on the use of thermo-luminescence to study the structure of solids and technique involving bathing a chilled sample with radiation. When the temperature of the sample increases, the stored energy is released as light in a pattern that reveals the atomic structure of the sample.

The Swiss chemist, in order to test the basic tenet of homoeopathy that patterns of hydrogen bonds can survive successive dilutions, tested samples diluted to a notional 10-30 grams per cubic cm — far beyond the point at which any ions of the original substance could remain. When he compared the ultra-dilute lithium and sodium chloride samples with pure water subjected to the same process, he found that the difference in their thermo-luminescence peaks was still present. According to Dr Rey, this finding proves that the networks of hydrogen bonds in the samples were different.

But not all are convinced. Some experts on water and hydrogen bonding argue that Dr Rey's rationale for water memory is not very persuasive as most hydrogen bonding in liquid water rearranges when frozen and that the thermo-luminescence peaks observed by the Swiss chemist occurred at about the temperatures where ice is known to undergo transitions between different phases. Others, however, believe that Dr Rey's findings fall well within the parameters of good physics.

The last time homoeopathy received a fillip from mainstream science was in 2001 when a research team in South Korea made a chance discovery that challenged the conventional wisdom that dissolved molecules may not spread farther apart as a solution is diluted and that they may, in fact, come together, initially as clusters of molecules and then as bigger aggregates of those clusters.

A German chemist, Dr Kurt Geckeler, and his colleague, Dr Shashadhar Samal, chanced upon this wholly counter-intuitive effect when investigating fullerenes at the Kwangju Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea. They reported that the football-shaped buckyball molecules formed untidy aggregates in solution.

This finding caused a lot of excitement among chemists as they believed that it provided the first scientifically valid insight into how some homoeopathic remedies work. Homoeopaths dilute medications several times over as they believe that the higher the dilution, the more potent the remedy. Some dilute to "infinity" — that is, until no molecules of the remedy remain. They maintain that water holds a memory, or "imprint" of the active ingredient which is more potent than the ingredient itself.

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