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5 Questions for ibogaine researcher Thomas Kingsley Brown
Brown on the history and future of ibogaine research in the U.S.
During Thomas Kingsley Brown’s first year as a chemistry graduate student in the 1980s, he went to a Grateful Dead show and tried LSD for the first time. A month later, he had his first experience with magic mushrooms. Soon, he realized he was more interested in consciousness and the human experience than he was in rodent brains, so he left his chemistry program and went on to earn a PhD in anthropology at the University of California at San Diego, studying people who undergo religious conversion and the mystical experiences they have in that process.
Then in 2009 Brown was at Burning Man, where he met Rick Doblin, co-founder of MAPS. At the time, MAPS was hiring a researcher to help run ibogaine studies in Mexico. Brown had never heard of the drug, but he was intrigued to learn that the powerful hallucinogen, found in the roots of the iboga plant, had the potential to treat addiction.
When Brown got home, he began collecting narratives from people who’d received ibogaine treatment to understand how their quality of life improved. At the time, he lived in San Diego, not far from the Mexican border, near one of MAPS’s initial ibogaine study sites. (In the U.S., ibogaine is a Schedule I drug, but in Mexico it is unregulated.) Brown got the MAPS Mexico research job. Since then, his team’s data has been published in collaboration with ibogaine researchers in New Zealand, where the drug is legally prescribed. The Microdose spoke with Brown about that research, the history of ibogaine use in the U.S., and the future of the drug.
Ibogaine has been used by people in western and central Africa for centuries, but over the last few decades, it’s become better known among people living in the U.S. and Europe. What catalyzed this newfound popularity?
It was this serendipitous discovery by a man named Howard Lotsof. In 1962, he was 19 years old and living in Brooklyn; he was part of a group of people who were studying and taking different substances to see what they did to understand their potential psychotherapeutic value. Howard and several other people who were in this group were also heroin users. And at some point, Lotsof got some ibogaine from a friend who was a chemist.
He had a lengthy, intense experience with visual hallucinations; ibogaine can last for 24 to 36 hours. About 20 hours after he ingested ibogaine, he returned to his Brooklyn home completely exhausted, and vowed never to take ibogaine again. He slept for a few hours, and when he woke up, he was totally refreshed and he went outside to take a walk — then had this realization that he hadn't had heroin for a day and a half, and yet, he wasn't in withdrawal. He also realized he had a completely different perception of heroin: while it once gave him comfort, he realized it was something that emulated death, and that he preferred life to death.
It was 20 years before he made it his life purpose to bring treatment to people, but in the late 1980s, Lotsof created a nonprofit organization, and he started getting involved with treatments for heroin addicts in the Netherlands and in New York City. Those treatments began in underground places and hotel rooms, and by the late 1990s, some researchers began studying ibogaine. By the 2000s, that research took off. I was involved with MAPS-sponsored studies that began in 2010. Nowadays, there are upwards of 75 ibogaine treatment places around the world.
What’s ibogaine used to treat?
It’s most commonly used to treat addiction. There are several studies now that suggest that ibogaine can quell physical withdrawal symptoms. When you stop using opioids, the symptoms of withdrawal set in quickly, and include things like intense sweating, vomiting, nausea — there’s a lot of physical discomfort, in addition to cravings for opioids.
Our MAPS-sponsored study, along with research out of New Zealand, showed that ibogaine is able to deal with withdrawal symptoms as well as methadone, which is the standard treatment for opioid addiction. Methadone is what’s called an opioid replacement treatment; you have to take it everyday. The idea is that you'll gradually taper your dosage down to the point where you're not taking any drugs, and the tapering is designed so you don’t go into withdrawal. It takes years to do this, and you have to do it everyday, or else you go into withdrawal; I’ve heard reports that methadone withdrawal is even worse than heroin withdrawal. A man I met who runs several methadone clinics told me that on average, it takes someone 7 to 12 years to taper off — and most people don't make it that far. Most people don't make it more than about three months.
In our ibogaine study, participants went through treatments over the course of several days: you go to the clinic, you get your treatment, you stay there for a few days, and then you typically go home after that.
In addition to addiction treatment, there is also interest in studying ibogaine to treat PTSD and traumatic brain injuries and depression. There are also, believe it or not, some anecdotal reports that it could be useful for Parkinson’s. There’s even some interest from private industry to study that application.
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
It’s fascinating that a drug that could treat addiction and PTSD might also help treat Parkinsons. Do you know why that might be the case?
I'm not a neuroscientist, but I’ve noticed there’s one thing that appears consistent for different types of psychedelics, like psilocybin as well as ibogaine: they seem to increase the expression of neurotrophic factors. [Editor’s note: Many studies measuring changes in neurotrophic factors after psychedelic doses have been done on rats; these methodologies would be impossible and unethical to replicate in humans.]
It's possible that ibogaine increases neurotrophic factors, molecules that help with nerve growth and function, and is important for the development of new pathways. It could be the case that this increase helps repair neurons or restore neural function by increasing dopamine reproduction. For example, maybe it could help undo the wiring underlying an addictive behavior.
Part of ibogaine treatment also involves being in community with people, and having integration sessions to process ibogaine experiences. What have participants told you about those experiences?
In one study, we collected stories from people; they wrote out their experiences and drew pictures. One thing I noticed is that when people go into treatment, they are often suicidal; they feel like opioids are killing them. After treatment, they get a new perspective on their life; they have a sense of being reborn, or being able to start their lives over again. Many say that what comes up for them in treatment is the full force of the consequences of their addiction and the effect it’s had on their lives and their relationships. That perspective is often a huge motivator for people to change.
In the U.S., ibogaine is a Schedule I drug; many people seeking treatment travel to Mexico, where it is unregulated. How do you think the drug’s status in the U.S. is affecting research and treatment?
Most ibogaine research is being done outside the U.S. right now. I’ve heard of one ibogaine study in the U.S. being planned, but otherwise, I'm not aware of any current research studies being done here.I think it's going to be a while before that changes. Ibogaine is even more stigmatized than most other psychedelics; it's been associated with deaths at pop-up treatment sites, so it's gotten a reputation for being risky. That makes it a lot less attractive for drug development, which isn't to say that there isn't any interest, but it's been pushed down the priority list for psychedelics people are interested in studying.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.