The psychedelic substance ibogaine may treat chronic disability from traumatic brain injury (TBI). A single dose of the drug led to lasting improvements in physical and social functioning, cognition and mood in military veterans with combat-related TBI.
“This is the first time anybody has really been able to show that there are neuro-rehabilitation effects from any psychedelic, and a pretty profound signal of improvement,” says Nolan Williams at Stanford University in California.
He and his colleagues recruited 30 male US military veterans with TBI to attend a treatment facility in Mexico for five days. They were each given a dose of ibogaine, a psychedelic substance from the iboga plant native to Africa. Everyone met with a therapist before and after taking ibogaine to prepare for and discuss their psychedelic experience. Participants could also attend activities like yoga, massage and meditation at the facility.
The participants took 12 milligrams of ibogaine per kilogram of body weight and received an intravenous infusion of magnesium to help prevent cardiac problems associated with the drug. The researchers measured disability in the participants before and after treatment using a scale of 0 to 100, with higher scores indicating greater disability. At the start of the study, participants scored an average of 30, implying mild-to-moderate disability. Four to five days after the treatment, this score fell below 20 and, a month later, to around 5, indicating no disability.
At least 83 per cent of participants no longer met criteria for depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) a month after treatment. They also saw significant improvements in processing speed, problem solving and working memory.
But it is unclear whether the effects are only due to the psychedelic drug. “The big problem is [that] a lack of a control group is going to make it near impossible to say for sure what is going on here,” says Albert Garcia-Romeu at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. He says that talking with a therapist, attending wellness activities or even travelling could have contributed to these improvements.
However, a lot of these variables have previously been explored as treatments for neurological illnesses with little success, says Williams. He believes a constellation of mechanisms may explain how ibogaine could treat TBI. For instance, the drug is known to enhance neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to rewire itself, he says.
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