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Modern Scientists Are Taking A Careful Look At Ancient Remedies

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  • Modern Scientists Are Taking A Careful Look At Ancient Remedies

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    This Message Is Reprinted Under The Fair Use
    Doctrine Of International Copyright Law:
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    Modern Scientists Are Taking A Careful Look At Ancient Remedies

    JOE SCHWARCZ, Freelance

    Published: Sunday, February 05, 2006

    When you think of pharmaceutical research, images of white-coated scientists
    in laboratories filled with petri dishes and rodents pop into mind.
    But these days many major drug companies employ researchers whose work may
    take them out of the laboratory as far as the plains of Africa, the mountains
    of Mexico or the forests of the Amazon. Their goal is to probe the traditional
    use of plants by shamans and medicine men and investigate whether these have
    any components that can be useful in modern medicine.
    Humans have long sought substances that provide a brief escape from reality.
    Five thousand years ago, Chinese Emperor Shen Nung described cannabis as a
    "heavenly guide." Ancient Indian scriptures like the Rig-Veda speak of soma, a
    sacred hallucinogenic beverage, which probably owed its effects to the
    amanita muscaria mushroom.
    Archeologists exploring a 2,000-year-old Mayan grave have unearthed enema
    paraphernalia with remnants of tobacco juice, psilocybe mushrooms and morning
    glory seeds. Apparently, ancient shamans discovered that introducing the active
    ingredients into the body in this fashion induced a trance more quickly than
    oral hallucinogens. Many a witches' brew in the Middle Ages contained
    extracts of the belladonna plant to induce the sensation of flying. Natives in what
    is now the southern U.S. and Mexico have a history of using the peyote
    cactus in religious ceremonies for its mind-altering effects. During the Crusades,
    nutmeg was used as a hallucinogen and in the 1960s, hippies smoked it with
    banana peel, getting mostly indigestion instead of enlightenment.
    Obviously, compounds in plants can have a physiological effect on humans. But
    why? How is it that ingesting a curious little brown mushroom (genus
    Psilocybe) can cause people to have hallucinations? As it turns out, some chance
    chemistry is at play. These mushrooms produce two compounds, psilocin and
    psilocybin, which happen to have a molecular structure that closely resembles that
    of naturally occurring compounds in the body. Serotonin, an important
    transmitter of nerve impulses in the brain, has the same basic molecular framework
    as psilocin and psilocybin. It triggers impulses by interacting with special
    protein molecules in cells known as serotonin receptors. Apparently, the
    mushroom chemicals also fit the same receptors but cause altered messages to be
    Serotonin, though, is not the only compound found in the body that resembles
    psilocin and psilocybin. Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is an even closer cousin,
    albeit a more mysterious one. It is produced in small amounts during normal
    metabolism, but its function is unclear. Some research indicates it may play a
    role in dreaming, as well as in mystical states such as the "near death
    There is even speculation the illusion of having been abducted by aliens
    stems from unusual DMT activity in the brain. It is also possible overproduction
    of dimethyltryptamine is linked to mental diseases such as schizophrenia, and
    underproduction can lead to depression. It isn't surprising then that
    compounds found in nature that resemble DMT should produce some interesting
    sensations. Especially in light of the fact DMT itself occurs in nature and we have
    plenty of evidence of its mind-altering effects.

    Dimethyltryptamine is found in the Psychotria viridis plant of the Amazon.
    But ingesting the leaves of the plant has no effect on the mind. That's because
    the compound is rapidly broken down in the gut by an enzyme known as
    monoamine oxidase, so it never makes it to the brain.
    But amazingly, shamans of some tribes in South America have found a way to
    solve the problem of DMT being broken down in the gut. They brew a foul-tasting
    tea called ayahuasca from the Psychotria plant to which they add a vine
    called Banisteriopsis caapi, which contains harmine, a chemical that is an
    effective inhibitor of the monoamine oxidase enzyme. When the enzyme is
    inactivated, DMT can be absorbed, and can trigger a reaction in the brain. It may be
    that the sacred tea chemistry developed by shamans in the Amazon will lead to
    novel treatments for depression.
    Another plant generating interest is Salvia divinorum, a member of the mint
    family that grows in Mexico. It has long been used by the Mazatec people in
    their religious ceremonies to induce a hallucinatory state. They either smoke
    or chew the leaves of the plant.
    The active ingredient, a compound knows as Salvinorin A, turns out to be the
    most potent naturally occurring hallucinogen, with less than one milligram
    capable of triggering hallucinations.
    Recent research has shown Salvinorin A carries out its effects by interacting
    with opiate receptors in the brain, a finding that may eventually lead to
    the design of more effective pain killing drugs. Salvia is not a controlled
    plant, meaning it can be legally sold. And, of course, numerous Internet
    companies have capitalized on this, promoting it as a "legal herbal high." But just
    because it is legal doesn't mean it is safe.
    Indeed, for many people the hallucinatory experience is an unpleasant one.
    The vivid imagery produced can be frightening and the dissociated state
    produced very disconcerting. Salvia is not to be fooled around with.
    Neither is Hawaiian baby woodrose. Just ask the teenager who purchased a
    dozen seeds of the plant on the Web after hearing it produces a great "natural
    high." He ended up in a hospital with dizziness, blurred vision, rapid heart
    beat and auditory hallucinations.
    Not surprising, given that the seeds contain lysergic acid amide, a molecule
    that bears a similarity to serotonin, and is a close relative of the
    notoriously powerful hallucinogen, LSD. That compound was originally synthesized in
    1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who had became aware of the
    hallucinogenic properties of naturally occurring lysergic acid derivatives and hoped to
    make some analogues that were pharmacologically useful. He discovered the
    hallucinogenic effects when he accidentally ingested some LSD, and warned
    against casual use of the substance.
    Incidentally, on Jan. 11 Albert Hofmann celebrated his 100th birthday!
    Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University's Office for Science and
    Society _www.OSS.McGill.ca_ (
    He can be heard every Sunday from 3-4 p.m. on CJAD.
    [email protected]
    © The Gazette (Montreal) 2006
    Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic

  • #2
    i have read about this stuff.


    • #3
      I've read about it too. It's about time scientists checked it out!


      • #4
        I read something similar a while back. The Jesuit missionaries wrote a very detailed work on Native American pharmacology in the 1700s. I actually had an 1890s copy of the book in my hands while an undergrad. The book was interesting because the left pages were in Latin, while the right pages were translated into English. From what my prof said, the English colonists didn't want to use the book because 1) it was written by Catholics, and 2)their attitude was "what do Indians know about medicine?" It was a very interesting read.


        • #5
          i had taken a workshop last year on native herbals. Cotton Mather was amazed at the Native American healing knowledge.


          • #6
            BB! Yes, it's kind of interesting how they think it's all "brand new" stuff.
            "Riches from the heart can not be stolen."


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