Scientists re-engineered natural psychedelic drug as treatment for depression and addiction, without the trippy effects

Ibogaine is a plant-based psychedelic substance used ritually by indigenous peoples in South America and West Africa. In the 1950s, researchers began studying the compound for use to treat drug addiction. Back then, William S. Burroughs and other Beats reported success using it to kick heroin, and there are currently multiple ibogaine clinics around the world. Now, chemists report that they've engineered a non-hallucinogenic relative of ibogaine that's shown to counter addiction and alleviate depression in rodents. From Science:

Two psychoactive compounds that combat depression and addiction in some people—LSD and ketamine—seem to help the neurons in this part of the brain communicate better by promoting the growth of dendritic spines, small protrusions from neurons that help neurons talk to each other.

In an attempt to find a nonhallucinogen that would do the same thing, researchers led by David Olson, a chemical neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis, started with ibogaine. The team synthesized 20 different chemical analogs of the hallucinogen, retaining a central ring-shaped portion that proved to be involved with some of the desired effects, but losing other fragments that proved toxic and hallucinogenic. The most promising result was a compound called tabernanthalog (TBG).

TBG promoted dendritic spine growth in both cells and rodents. The compound appeared safe in cell cultures and zebrafish and sharply reduced both alcohol- and heroin-seeking behavior in mice and rats. A single injection of the compound protected against relapse of heroin use for up to 14 days. TBG also doesn't appear to stimulate the brain's reward centers, as do drugs such as cocaine, indicating it may not cause dependency, the team reports today in Nature.

image: "shredded bark of Tabernanthe iboga" by Kgjerstad (CC BY-SA 3.0)