Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Daily Email Edition

Get MN Daily NEWS delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday!


Hallucinogenic plants might be treatment for alcoholism

During the 1950s and 1960s, university researchers around the country, including some at the University of Minnesota, performed experiments testing the effects of hallucinogenic drugs on humans.

The University stopped its research in 1968 after new legislation restricting and prohibiting whole classes of drugs swept through Congress, halting research for decades in areas of psychiatry, neuroscience, biochemistry and other fields.

Dennis McKenna, a neurobiologist and University lecturer, has worked to legitimize hallucinogen research and therapy ever since.

In his courses at the University’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, McKenna discusses how plants could be used to address current social problems.

And with his latest proposal – using exotic hallucinogenic plants to treat alcoholism – McKenna just might succeed.

McKenna said his idea evolved after a 1993 trip to Brazil with an international consortium of scientists to investigate an Amazonian medicinal drink called ayahuasca, which means “vine of the gods.” The drink is a mixture of two indigenous plants, and its ritual use stretches back hundreds – if not thousands – of years, he said. Today ayahuasca is also used as a ritual sacrament in a number of Brazilian churches.

The scientific team studied the drink’s psychological and physical effects on church members, with intriguing results, McKenna said.

Most test subjects testified to previous drug and alcohol abuse, violent tendencies and suicidal thoughts, until taking ayahuasca “transformed” them, he said.

“Most subjects’ initial experiences were very terrifying and profound in the sense that they often saw where they were headed, where they were going off the track,” McKenna said. “With the help of ayahuasca and also the context of the church, they basically were able to turn their lives around.”

Besides such behavioral changes, the researchers discovered that the brains of long-term ayahuasca users were chemically different from nonusers. Users had more receptors for serotonin, a neurotransmitter which helps regulate moods. The receptors function like vacuum pumps, transporting serotonin back into brain cells.

“There was a greater density of these things in the membranes of the neurons,” McKenna said. “And that was kind of a head-scratcher in the first place – there were no other drugs recorded or known to do this.”

Studies have correlated lowered densities of serotonin receptors with alcoholism, severe depression and violent behavior.

“You have a group of people who were basically dysfunctional,” McKenna said. “They’re addicted, they have suicidal problems, they join (the church), they start taking ayahuasca, the biochemical profile is reversed, and the behavioral profile greatly improves.”

Realizing the drink’s therapeutic potential, McKenna has asked the National Institutes of Health to fund research into the drink’s ability to combat alcoholism. He said he expects an official response in October but does not have high hopes.

As a controlled substance fairly new to scientific research, ayahuasca’s usage in human experimentation must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Neither organization would comment for this story.

Jim Beek, a public relations representative for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said if ayahuasca was shown to be therapeutic, it would be tested by the FDA for reliability before getting full approval.

“If it’s something of questionable safety, there’s other stuff they can use that does seem to work for people who do have a problem with some kind of addiction,” Beek said.

The University’s Institutional Review Board would also have to guarantee ayahuasca’s safety for human subjects, said Dick Bianco, the University’s assistant vice president for regulatory affairs.

He said the board would ensure volunteers were fully informed of risks and protected to the fullest possible extent.

“That’s why we have an (Institutional Review Board),” Bianco said, “to make sure all the protections for the subject and patients are there.”

Dr. Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA medical school and collaborator with McKenna in Brazil, said taking ayahuasca is not completely safe.

“We’re very concerned about people taking (antidepressants such as Prozac) who then take ayahuasca. They could get very, very sick and even experience a life-threatening serotonin syndrome – that’s clearly a risk,” Grob said.

Despite that risk, Grob said he supports McKenna’s research of the drink’s antiaddictive properties.

“Dennis is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the science of ayahuasca, the botanical and pharmacological science,” Grob said. “He’s also a visionary thinker, often a step ahead of the pack in perceiving the potentials that this area has for helping us understand the mind, the brain, illness and helping with development of new treatment models.”

Ralph Metzner, who in the 1960s jump-started the first modern psychedelic movement with fellow Harvard professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, said he supports any research that might wrench the United States out of “the throes of a prohibition mentality.”

“Ayahuasca is actually, of all the different psychedelics, the one that has the best potential for treatment of alcoholism,” Metzner said. Besides expanding consciousness, “which is the whole point of 12-step therapy,” Metzner said the drink is a natural purgative, referring to its tendency to make users vomit.

“It’s like a detox program built right into the experience,” he said.

Lee Billings covers faculty and staff affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]

Leave a Comment

Accessibility Toolbar

Comments (0)

All The Minnesota Daily Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *