Could a mysterious hallucinogen used by shamans during healing ceremonies deep in the forests of Gabon be the key to defeating addiction? Though it sounds unlikely, preliminary research suggests a little-known psychedelic chemical called ibogaine could help people who abuse alcohol, cannabis, and cocaine overcome their substance dependence.
Ibogaine is one of the psychoactive chemicals found in the root bark of the African Tabernanthe iboga plant, which has been used in the shamanic rituals of the Bwiti religion in West Africa.
A team of researchers in Brazil has found that the use of ibogaine can facilitate prolonged periods of abstinence without serious complications when the drug is administered by a physician and accompanied with psychotherapy. Their findings were published September 29 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
In the early 1960s, anecdotal reports surfaced that ibogaine could help defeat opiate addiction, prompting some researchers to begin examining the anti-addictive properties of the drug. However, the investigation into ibogaine’s potential has been severely limited due to its illegal status in many countries.
“After these initial uncontrolled case reports, non-clinical, clinical and laboratory-based research has sought to assess ibogaine’s efficacy in the treatment of opioid addiction. At least two case studies have demonstrated the drug’s effectiveness at reducing cravings during opioid withdrawal: one from 32 patients treated at a clinic, and another from 33 patients treated in non-medical settings,” Eduardo Ekman Schenberg of the Federal University of Sao Paulo and his colleagues explained in their study.
Ibogaine has not been outlawed in Brazil, and the drug has been used to treat addiction since at least 2001. For their research, Schenberg and his colleagues investigated 75 drug-dependent patients who attended a private clinic that used a combination of ibogaine and cognitive-behavioral therapy to fight substance abuse.
Patients at the clinic — who suffered addictions to alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, and crack — were evaluated by multi-professional team of therapists and doctors before being administered ibogaine in a controlled setting.
The patients were administered ibogaine in the morning in a private hospital room, where they stayed overnight. The psychedelic experience lasted approximately 10 hours, and the patients were provided with psychological or emotional support if needed.
“This typically involved reassuring clients that all effects and reactions were part of the experience. Patients were encouraged to be quiet, calm and confident,” the researchers explained.
After their psychedelic experience, the patient continued receiving psychotherapy from the clinic, and were sometimes given another dose of ibogaine in the months following the first session.
The patients reported “surprisingly long periods of abstinence,” the researchers remarked, “reaching a median of 5.5 months after the first ibogaine session and 8.4 months after all subsequent ibogaine sessions.”
The eight women in the study all “reported that they were abstinent at the time of contact, and only two reported having had a relapse after the initial ibogaine session,” Schenberg and his colleagues wrote. “Both of these women then took ibogaine a second time and have reportedly not relapsed since.”
A majority of the men in the study, 58 of the 67, also stated that they were abstinent, “but 10 of those were currently undergoing other treatment interventions,” the researchers said. “Except for those 10, 38 (57%) men achieved abstinence with no other treatments.”
None of the patients report serious adverse effects, but many of them did report mild adverse reactions to ibogaine such as nausea, ataxia, vomiting, tremors, headaches and mental confusion.
Though the results seem promising, Schenberg and his colleagues cautioned that more rigorous scientific research is needed before ibogaine becomes an accepted treatment.
“Indeed, only a randomized double-blind clinical trial could accurately assess” the true potential of ibogaine as a treatment for drug addiction, they wrote.
“Despite the limitations of the present report, outlined above, the present data are the first formal clinical report to our knowledge that suggests that ibogaine has a strong therapeutic potential in the treatment of dependence to stimulants and other non-opiate drugs and that the medical complications previously reported can be avoided by administering the compound in the presence of a physician in a safe and legal medical setting,” the researchers concluded.