The psychedelic drug ibogaine may be able to give brain injury sufferers some much-needed help. A new, small study found that military veterans with a history of traumatic brain injury experienced a significant improvement in their symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD following treatment with ibogaine and magnesium. The findings merit larger clinical trials of the drug for TBI and other brain conditions, the researchers say.
Ibogaine is derived from the root of the iboga plant (Tabernanthe iboga), native to Central Africa. Even today, the drug’s hallucinogenic effects are used by people in the area as part of ritualistic ceremonies. But more recently, some people have also started to take it for therapeutic reasons. Senior study author Nolan Williams, a psychiatrist and director of the Brain Stimulation Lab at Stanford, has come across some of these cases, such as special ops veterans with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) who have reported life-changing improvements after taking ibogaine. Eventually, these stories made him and his team curious enough to dig deeper.
“There has been limited research on ibogaine, and most of it has focused on its potential as a treatment for substance use disorders,” Williams told Gizmodo in an email. “But its wide-ranging effects on the brain, including interacting with a number of different neurotransmitter systems and its ability to increase so-called trophic factors that support brain cells’ ability to grow and re-wire, made it quite plausible that ibogaine may have additional therapeutic potential.”
Ibogaine is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning it’s not considered to have any therapeutic use legally in the U.S. So the team had to find a workaround in order to closely study its effects in TBI patients. They collaborated with the nonprofit organization VETS, Inc, which purports to help veterans find ways to access psychedelic therapies safely. With the backing of VETS, the team found 30 special op veterans with a history of TBI and mental health issues who were planning on their own to seek ibogaine therapy at a clinic in Mexico, where the drug is legal.
Before their visit, the researchers conducted a battery of tests to measure participants’ level of PTSD, anxiety, and depression symptoms, as well as their overall functioning. Ibogaine use has been linked to heart complications, however. So the researchers also arranged for participants to receive a dose of magnesium at the same time, hoping it would prevent or reduce this risk. After the vets returned home, the team measured them again and found dramatic differences.
“On average, a single treatment with ibogaine, combined with magnesium to protect against a known cardiac risk of ibogaine, led to remarkable improvements in these symptoms both immediately after treatment and one month later,” Williams said. “Similarly, formal cognitive testing also revealed improvements in participants’ concentration, information processing, memory and impulsivity as compared to their pre-ibogaine treatment.”
The team’s findings, published Friday in Nature Medicine, don’t mean that ibogaine should become a new standard treatment for vets with TBI and related problems. But they do show that it’s time to study the drug more extensively for TBI and possibly other brain conditions, according to Williams.
“We believe that these results support the need for rigorous double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials in the U.S.,” he said. “If our findings replicate in such trials, then ibogaine’s dramatic effects on TBI suggest it might hold broader therapeutic potential and could become a neuro-rehab drug for additional neuropsychiatric conditions.”
The team is currently analyzing additional data collected from these veterans, including MRI and EEG scans, to understand exactly how ibogaine might have changed their brains for the better, which will inform their plans for future studies.
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