The effects of natural mood-altering substances such as herbs and essential oils are to come under the microscope thanks to the success of Northumbria University's Human Cognitive Neuroscience Unit, writes Alison Utley.
The unit, which researches the link between the brain and behaviour, has moved out of its single laboratory to an expanded dedicated research space following a partnership with industry.
HCNU director Andrew Scholey said that a suite of laboratories with state-of-the-art facilities had been built to provide the capacity to test the impact of "safe" substances on mental performance and physiological processes. He said the unit had gone from strength to strength since opening in 1999. "We have boosted our research profile and are attracting interest in our studies from all over the world."
The unit is examining the nature of impairments often seen in conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, chronic fatigue syndrome, hormonal imbalances, eating disorders and drug abuse.
Researchers have discovered that lemon balm, ginseng, Ginkgo biloba , rosemary and lavender essential oils can affect mood and mental functioning. Even chewing gum was found to have a significant effect.
"Some of our findings have been very surprising to a lot of people," Dr Scholey said. "I began this work as a sceptic, but it is clear these substances have many effects. After all, they have been around for thousands of years."
Other studies at the unit have examined the relationship between hormones and behaviour and the effects of pheromones on attractiveness to the opposite sex.
Researcher Nick Neave said the new facilities should enable an expansion of his work on the effects of testosterone levels on footballers. "Managers of the game are very keen to find out what is the optimum testosterone level for players to perform at their best," he said.
"This work is at an early stage. There is much more to be done, and the new laboratories will provide us with the ideal base to develop our future research."