A growing body of evidence suggests that magic mushrooms and other psychedelic drugs have the potential to treat mental health issues such as depression and addiction. However, the unpredictable nature of the hallucinatory trips occasioned with these substances makes them difficult for clinicians to work with. To remedy this, researchers from the University of California, Davis, have created a new psychedelic that appears to generate significant therapeutic effects without causing any mind-altering trips.
Publishing their findings in the journal Nature, the study authors explain how they set out to create a drug that could deliver the same benefits as a psychedelic called ibogaine, but without any of the negative side-effects. Derived from a West African shrub called Tabernanthe iboga, ibogaine is a highly psychoactive alkaloid that has been found to eliminate cravings and withdrawals in people suffering from addiction to opioids and other drugs.
While no large-scale clinical trials have ever been conducted on ibogaine, animal studies have indicated that it increases the expression of key growth factors in numerous brain regions, enabling new connections to form. For instance, both glial cell-line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) have been found to increase significantly following a single dose of ibogaine, resulting in a marked rise in synaptic proliferation.
This surge in neural plasticity has been credited with enabling users to re-wire their brains and overcome their addictions, but many scientists are highly concerned by some of ibogaine’s other effects. Apart from the fact that it generates an extremely intense and long-lasting psychedelic trip, the drug also impacts cardiac function and has been associated with numerous deaths.
To overcome these drawbacks, the study authors set about isolating the main psychoplastogenic components of the ibogaine alkaloid. Remarkably, they were able to achieve this with just a single chemical reaction, resulting in the creation of a compound that the researchers have dubbed ‘tabernanthalog’.
Like ibogaine, tabernanthalog was found to stimulate a dramatic increase in new connections when applied to neurons in a petri dish, indicating that it retains the ability to promote brain plasticity. However, mice that received the component displayed no head-twitch response, which suggests that they did not experience any hallucinations. Typically, rodents exhibit a significant amount of head twitching when they are given psychedelics.
Tabernanthalog was also found to be highly effective at treating addiction, at least in rodents. For instance, rats that had been trained to push a lever in exchange for heroin attenuated this behavior after receiving the compound, while mice that had become dependent on alcohol reduced their booze intake following a single dose of the drug.
Rodents with depressive symptoms also displayed a considerable improvement after receiving tabernanthalog, as evidenced by their increased motivation to swim when placed in water. Importantly, no dangerous cardiac effects were seen when the drug was given to mice, rats or zebrafish, implying that it is considerably safer than ibogaine.
While the possibility of generating these therapeutic effects without the need for a psychedelic trip will be welcomed by many clinicians, others believe that altered states of consciousness are fundamental to the healing power of psychedelics. For example, a number of studies have indicated that “mystical experiences” are the main predictor of positive outcomes in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for patients with depression and other mental health issues.
Regardless, the study authors insist that their “work demonstrates that, through careful chemical design, it is possible to modify a psychedelic compound to produce a safer, non-hallucinogenic variant that has therapeutic potential.”