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Salvia Raises No Safety Flags In Small Test

  1. Terrapinzflyer
    For centuries, shamans of the Mazatec people of Oaxaca, Mexico, have used a plant called Salvia divinorum in their religious practices.

    Salvia is a member of the mint family. Smoking it gives you a blast of Salvinorin A, a psychoactive substance.

    More recently, recreational drug users of the American people of North America have been using the drug in a variety of social settings. Now, medical research people at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore have taken a scientific look at salvinorin A. Their conclusion from a small safety study: it packs a punch that can mess with your mind, but probably won't hurt your body.

    Hopkins' behavioral pharmacologist Matthew W. Johnson and his colleagues administered the Salvinorin A to four volunteers, picked because they were psychologically and physically healthy and had plenty of experience with hallucinogenic drugs. The volunteers inhaled various doses of the chemical or a placebo 20 times over a couple of months.

    As he reports in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, subjects experienced few if any physical side effects, but all subjects reported intense psychological experiences with the drug.

    Johnson has quite a bit of research experience with psychoactive drugs. He's been studying the hallucinogen psilocybin for a decade. He says the high from Salvinorin A is quite different.

    Although someone's perceptions are altered on psilocybin, "people still report being in this world, so to speak" Johnson tells Shots. "They can interact with friends. They can pick up objects. They might have a very different experience of the world, and they might feel that they're having experiences beyond this world. But in some sense they're still 'here.' "

    At the height of a Salvinorin A trip, people are practically comatose, and they experience a completely different reality. "They say they're interacting with things they're calling 'entities' or angels of some type," Johnson says.

    The Justice Department says three-quarters of a million people try the drug each year.

    Part of salvia's popularity may be due to the fact that it's not a federal crime to possess it, although DoJ says that as of October 2009, 14 states had passed laws controlling its use.

    Johnson didn't conduct his study of Salvinorin A to reassure stoners. He says the drug acts on a brain pathway that's been implicated in some dementias, so it's possible the chemical or some drug like it may have a therapeutic future.

    by Joe Palca
    December 07, 2010



  1. Terrapinzflyer

    Johns Hopkins researchers document the psychological and physical effects of drug on paid, drug-experienced volunteers

    In what is believed to be the first controlled human study of the effects of salvinorin A, the active ingredient in Salvia divinorum, a controversial new hallucinogen featured widely on You Tube and other internet sites, Johns Hopkins researchers report that the effects are surprisingly strong, brief, and intensely disorienting, but without apparent short-term adverse effects in healthy people.

    Since the NIH-funded research was done with four mentally and physically healthy hallucinogen-experienced volunteers in a safe medical environment, researchers say they are limited in their conclusions about the compound’s safety, according to Matthew W. Johnson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the study’s lead author.

    Johnson and the Hopkins team say they undertook the research to try and put some rigorous scientific information into current concerns over the growing recreational use of Salvia divinorum, which is an herb in mint family. The plant, which has been used for centuries by shamans in Mexico for spiritual healing, is the target of increased nationwide legal efforts to restrict its availability and use. Though little is known about the compound’s effects in humans, some legislators have been spurred to action after watching one of thousands of online videos chronicling the uncontrolled behavior that sometimes follows its use. However, because animal studies show that salvinorin A has unique effects in the brain, some scientists believe that the drug or a modified version of it may lead to medical advances in the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, chronic pain and drug addiction.

    Salvia leaves are typically smoked. Often the quantity of salvinorin A in the leaves has been boosted by the addition of a concentrated extract of the compound. The drug is available online or in “head shops” and is legal in most states. More than a dozen states have outright bans on the product and eight others have restrictions such as prohibitions for minors. About a dozen nations have also outlawed it. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Administration has included it in their list of “drugs and chemicals of concern,” but to date there is no federal prohibition against it.

    The findings of the Hopkins study are published online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

    “Everything we knew up to this point about the effects of this drug in humans, other than a few surveys or anecdotal case reports, comes from accounts on websites or YouTube videos,” Johnson says. “Those are hardly scientific sources enabling a rigorous understanding of the effects of the drug. Even though the sample size in this study is small, we used an extremely well-controlled methodology, which provided a clear picture of the drug’s basic effects.”

    Johnson and his team say this is not just a first step toward greater understanding of the unique compound and its effects, but of the kappa opioid receptors in the brain, which animal studies have suggested salvinorin A targets. Researchers see potential in kappa opioid receptors — which are different from the receptors targeted by other hallucinogens or opiates like morphine and heroin — for the development of therapeutic medications.

    “We’re opening the door for systematic study of this class of compounds, about which we know precious little,” says Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D., a Johns Hopkins professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the study’s senior investigator.

    The study found that salvia’s effects begin almost immediately after inhaled, are very short acting — with a peak of strength after two minutes and very little effect remaining after 20 — and get more powerful as more of the drug is administered. Salvinorin A produced no significant changes in heart rate or blood pressure, no tremors and no adverse events were reported. But, Johnson cautions, the sample size was small and only healthy and hallucinogen-experienced volunteers participated, so conclusions of safety are limited.

    The study was conducted on four healthy, paid subjects — two men and two women — who had taken hallucinogens in the past. Each participant completed 20 sessions over the course of two-to-three months. They inhaled a wide range of doses of the drug in its pure form. At some sessions, they were given a placebo. Participants were asked to rate the strength of peak drug effect on a scale of 1 to 10. Participants were allowed to drop out of the study at any time if they felt they could not tolerate a stronger dose on the following visit. No one withdrew.

    Researchers say they were struck by the reaction of two participants who rated the strength of a high dose a 10, or “as strong as imaginable for this drug.” It is unusual, the investigators said, for volunteers with prior hallucinogen experience to report such intensity. Despite these strong experiences, heart rate and blood pressure were unaffected.

    While no adverse effects were noted in the controlled laboratory environment, Johnson says, the drug’s effects could be disastrous if a person were, for example, driving a car while on salvia. Few emergency room visits have been linked to its use, which researchers believe is because it wears off so quickly.

    He says subjects in the study reported very different experiences from those caused by hallucinogens like LSD and so-called “magic mushrooms.” Those drugs, Johnson says, tend to have powerful effects, but the person is typically still aware of the external world and can interact with it . “With salvia, the subjects described leaving this reality completely and going to other worlds or dimensions and interacting with entities,” Johnson says. “These are very powerful, very intense experiences.”

    Animal data suggests the drug is not addictive, Griffiths says, and its intensity could keep people from returning to the drug again and again. “Many people take it once and it produces such profound dysphoria that they don’t want to do it again,” he says.

    The research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Other Johns Hopkins researchers involved in the study are Katherine A. MacLean, Ph.D., and Chad R. Reissig, Ph.D.

    Release Date: 12/07/2010

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