How Psychedelics You've Never Heard of Could Help Treat Mental Illness

Personal Health

Ibogaine isn't the only strange psychedelic drug with healing powers coming out of West Africa these days. Scientists at Northwestern University looking into treatments used by traditional healers in Nigeria have synthesized four new chemical compounds that could eventually lead to better treatments for people suffering psychiatric disorders.

The compounds are indole alkaloids found in various plants used by Nigerian healers to treat people suffering from conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Indole alkaloids, of which more than 4,000 have been identified, include tryptamine and serotonin, as well as ibogaine, psilocybin and psilocin (magic mushrooms) and the fast-acting psychedelic DMT.

The Northwestern researchers have completely synthesized two of the ones used by Nigerian healers—alstonine and serpentine—and found that they indeed have antipsychotic properties that could potentially improve the treatment of such disorders.

While current drugs used to treat schizophrenia work well at tamping down delusions and hallucinations, they don't work as well in reducing cognitive impairment. But the scientists said research on these new compounds using animal models suggests they could improve cognitive impairment.

"After billions of years of evolution, nature has given us a great starting point for generating new types of molecules that could end up being used as innovative drugs," said Karl Scheidt, lead author of the paper. "We've learned how to make these natural products in the lab and can now evaluate what are the most effective parts of these natural products for potential therapies."

Scheidt, a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and professor of pharmacology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, was approached by Dr. Herbert Meltzer, professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, pharmacology and physiology at Feinberg, about the possibility of collaborating on researching the plant drugs. He needed Scheidt's expertise in designing new methods for constructing complex natural products.

"The synthesis of these alkaloids, which we have now just achieved, was exceedingly difficult," said Meltzer, "Karl Scheidt's expertise in the synthesis of natural products was crucial to the success of this project and is the first step in getting a new drug ready for clinical trials."

In Nigeria, traditional healers boil down the plants containing the indole alkaloids and create an extract that they give to people suffering symptoms of mental illness. But, ensconced firmly in Western medical traditions, Meltzer said that wasn't good enough.

"Nature did not intend this plant to produce an antipsychotic drug on its own," he said.

And Scheidt is using his chemical skills to create separate but related natural products from the plants. With his breakthrough research, Scheidt has now created a model for making more of these compounds for future studies and, ultimately, clinical trials.  

"We can make multi-gram quantities of any of the compounds we want," Scheidt said. "We built the assembly line and are now uniquely positioned to explore their potential."

Journal Reference:

Ashkaan Younai, Bi-Shun Zeng, Herbert Y. Meltzer, Karl A. Scheidt. 

Enantioselective Syntheses of Heteroyohimbine Natural Products: A Unified Approach through Cooperative Catalysis. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2015; DOI: 10.1002/anie.201502011

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