For several years the scientific community has investigated and continues to investigate, with encouraging results, the effectiveness of psychoactive molecules such as MDMA, ketamine and psilocybin – already used (illegally) as recreational drugs for their psychotropic and hallucinogenic effects – for the treatment of several psychiatric disorders, including depression, paranoid disorders, and some types of mood disorders. In some test tube studies and (less) clinical trials, these substances, administered in very precise doses, would in fact appear to promote brain plasticity, i.e. the brain’s ability to adapt, change over time and form new connections, and at the same time have a profile of safety such as not to cause subsequent damage and side effects. As research continues, more and more substances are entering the list of potential new drugs: the latest, in chronological order, is ibogaine, a drug extracted from the iboga plant, less known than the others mentioned above but already used in traditional African medicine and which for over half a century has been known to have a certain effectiveness in reducing heroin addiction without causing withdrawal symptoms. In particular, a small study conducted on a group of US veterans by researchers from Stanford Universityin California, showed that ibogaine could be useful in the treatment of so-called traumatic brain injury (TBI, an acronym for Traumatic brain injury): One month after starting treatment, study participants said they observed an 80% reduction, on average, in some of the symptoms of traumatic brain damage, including so-called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). ) and depression. The results were published in the magazine Nature Medicine.
Ibogaine, as we were saying, is an extract obtained from the root bark of an African shrub, and has been used for centuries by some African pygmy tribes. The authors of the study chose to recruit war veterans because their greater risk of developing psychiatric pathologies due to their violent experience is known, as well as their greater risk of physical trauma to the head. The most common treatment for these people is based on antidepressants and anxiolytics, which however have no effect on brain lesions. In particular, the study sample was made up as follows: 23 participants suffered from symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, 14 with anxiety disorder and 15 with alcohol abuse; 19 subjects declared that they had had suicidal intentions and 7 had even tried to carry them out. Their mental disorders were associated with problems in cognitive functioning, mobility, self-care, and other daily activities. And for all of them the effect of traditional therapies proved to be very limited: “We desperately need new treatments for Ptsd and these disorders”, he commented to Nature Maria Steennkampclinical psychologist of NYU Grossman School of Medicine from New York.
Participants administered ibogaine themselves, purchasing it in Mexico, where the substance is legal (it is not legal in the United States); they also took magnesium supplements to lower the risk of heart side effects. These are the results after one month of treatment: 88% fewer symptoms related to Ptsd, 87% fewer symptoms related to depression, 81% fewer symptoms related to anxiety. After treatment, again on average, the cognitive and mobility disabilities linked to the disorders significantly attenuated; no participants complained of cardiac side effects. “This substance – he declared Nolan Williamsa neuroscientist at Stanford and co-author of the work – appears to have a large, significant and consistent effect.”
A proof of concept
The study, the authors always say, can therefore be considered a proof of concept, that is, a demonstration in principle that adequate screening and administration can reduce the symptoms and risks associated with these disorders. Scientists now plan to evaluate any long-term benefits of this potential treatment and to understand on a deeper level, through brain scans and biomarkers, the biochemical action of the molecule. According to a previous study, conducted on mice, ibogaine could temporarily reopen a “window” similar to that observed during the early stages of development, in which the nervous system is particularly malleable.