Opium For The People: Burning Incense Is Psychoactive
Religious leaders have contended for millennia that burning incense is good for the soul. Now, biologists have learned that it is good for our brains too. An international team of scientists, including researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, describe how burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression. This suggests that an entirely new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses.
“In spite of information stemming from ancient texts, constituents of Bosweilla had not been investigated for psychoactivity,” said Raphael Mechoulam, one of the research study’s co-authors. “We found that incensole acetate, a Boswellia resin constituent, when tested in mice lowers anxiety and causes antidepressive-like behavior. Apparently, most present day worshipers assume that incense burning has only a symbolic meaning.”
To determine incense’s psychoactive effects, the researchers administered incensole acetate to mice. They found that the compound significantly affected areas in brain areas known to be involved in emotions as well as in nerve circuits that are affected by current anxiety and depression drugs. Specifically, incensole acetate activated a protein called TRPV3, which is present in mammalian brains and also known to play a role in the perception of warmth of the skin. When mice bred without this protein were exposed to incensole acetate, the compound had no effect on their brains.
“Perhaps Marx wasn’t too wrong when he called religion the opium of the people: morphine comes from poppies, cannabinoids from marijuana, and LSD from mushrooms; each of these has been used in one or another religious ceremony.” said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. “Studies of how those psychoactive drugs work have helped us understand modern neurobiology. The discovery of how incensole acetate, purified from frankincense, works on specific targets in the brain should also help us understand diseases of the nervous system. This study also provides a biological explanation for millennia-old spiritual practices that have persisted across time, distance, culture, language, and religion–burning incense really does make you feel warm and tingly all over!”
Arieh Moussaieff, Neta Rimmerman, Tatiana Bregman, Alex Straiker, Christian C. Felder, Shai Shoham, Yoel Kashman, Susan M. Huang, Hyosang Lee, Esther Shohami, Ken Mackie, Michael J. Caterina, J. Michael Walker, Ester Fride, and Raphael Mechoulam
Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain.
The FASEB Journal. Published online before print May 20, 2008 as doi: 10.1096/fj.07-101865
Burning of Boswellia resin as incense has been part of religious and cultural ceremonies for millennia and is believed to contribute to the spiritual exaltation associated with such events. Transient receptor potential vanilloid (TRPV) 3 is an ion channel implicated in the perception of warmth in the skin. TRPV3 mRNA has also been found in neurons throughout the brain; however, the role of TRPV3 channels there remains unknown. Here we show that incensole acetate (IA), a Boswellia resin constituent, is a potent TRPV3 agonist that causes anxiolytic-like and antidepressive-like behavioral effects in wild-type (WT) mice with concomitant changes in c-Fos activation in the brain. These behavioral effects were not noted in TRPV3-/- mice, suggesting that they are mediated via TRPV3 channels. IA activated TRPV3 channels stably expressed in HEK293 cells and in keratinocytes from TRPV3+/+ mice. It had no effect on keratinocytes from TRPV3-/- mice and showed modest or no effect on TRPV1, TRPV2, and TRPV4, as well as on 24 other receptors, ion channels, and transport proteins. Our results imply that TRPV3 channels in the brain may play a role in emotional regulation. Furthermore, the biochemical and pharmacological effects of IA may provide a biological basis for deeply rooted cultural and religious traditions.—Moussaieff, A., Rimmerman, N., Bregman, T., Straiker, A., Felder, C. C., Shoham, S., Kashman, Y., Huang, S. M., Lee, H., Shohami, E., Mackie, K., Caterina, M. J., Walker, J. M., Fride, E., Mechoulam, R. Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain.