What Happens to Brains Experiencing "One of the Most Potent Hallucinogens Known"

Illustration for article titled What Happens to Brains Experiencing "One of the Most Potent Hallucinogens Known"

Salvia, also known as salvia divinorum, is a smokable hallucinogen that's still legal in most parts of the world. People order it via the internet and smoke tiny quantities to experience what many call an experience so intense that many people call it "spiritual." The high lasts for just a few minutes, and includes intense visual hallucinations and out-of-body sensations. Now a group of researchers with the United States Department of Energy are studying the drug, watching how it affects the brains of non-human primates, to find out if it has any therapeutic value. Here you can see the brains of several monkeys on salvia. Find out what the researchers discovered below.


According to a release from the Brookhaven National Lab:

Salvia is legal in most states, but is grabbing the attention of municipal lawmakers. Numerous states have placed controls on salvia or salvinorin A - the plant's active component - and others, including New York, are considering restrictions.

"This is probably one of the most potent hallucinogens known," said Brookhaven chemist Jacob Hooker, the lead author of the study, which is the first to look at how the drug travels through the brain. "It's really important that we study drugs like salvia and how they affect the brain in order to understand why they are abused and to investigate their medicinal relevance, both of which can inform policy makers."

Hooker and fellow researchers used positron emission tomography, or PET scanning, to watch the distribution of salvinorin A in the brains of anesthetized primates. In this technique, the scientists administer a radioactively labeled form of salvinorin A (at concentrations far below pharmacologically active doses) and use the PET scanner to track its site-specific concentrations in various brain regions.

Within 40 seconds of administration, the researchers found a peak concentration of salvinorin A in the brain - nearly 10 times faster than the rate at which cocaine enters the brain. About 16 minutes later, the drug was essentially gone. This pattern parallels the effects described by human users, who experience an almost immediate high that starts fading away within 5 to 10 minutes.

High concentrations of the drug were localized to the cerebellum and visual cortex, which are parts of the brain responsible for motor function and vision, respectively. Based on their results and published data from human use, the scientists estimate that just 10 micrograms of salvia in the brain is needed to cause psychoactive effects in humans . . .

The drug targets a receptor that is known to modulate pain and could be important for therapies as far reaching as mood disorders . . . The scientists also hope to develop radioactive tracers that can better probe the brain receptors to which salvia binds. Such studies could possibly lead to therapies for chronic pain and mood disorders.

I'm always glad to hear about any drug being studied for therapeutic possibilities, but apparently the Brookhaven team is also studying the "abuse" potential for salvia, and at one point in this release the lab suggests that the drug is becoming popular with "teenagers and young adults." Strong WTF feeling here: the only people I know who sing the praises of salvia are sixty-something, new-agey hippies. Who are these mysterious salvia-smoking teenagers, and why would they bother?

Brookhaven Scientists Explore Brain's Reaction to Potent Hallucinogen [Brookhaven Today]


Annalee Newitz

@Seth L: The DOE funds a lot of medical research, including a ton of genome projects. I don't understand the regulatory wonkish contortions that cause such funding to fall under the DOE, but they do. I'm guessing the research will be used in part for policy-makers who want to know more about whether it should be made illegal. Also, of course, it will be used by medical researchers.