Psy-Q: Is Bufo alvarius a potential psychedelic therapy or trend? What does the research to date show about synthesized Bufo alvarius or toad venom (5-MeO-DMT) as a psychedelic therapy or mental health treatment?

Rachel Yehuda, PhD

Rachel Yehuda, PhD

Johannes G. Ramaekers, PhD

Johannes G. Ramaekers, PhD

Rafael Lancelotta, MS, LPC

Rafael Lancelotta, MS, LPC

Roger McIntyre

Roger McIntyre

 

 

 

 

 

 

Answer: Research into 5-MeO-DMT (toad venom) is in the very early stages, but the substance – found in the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad (Bufo alvarius), in some plants, and created synthetically – may have potential as a treatment for psychiatric conditions. 5-MeO-DMT is a Schedule I drug (thus, grouped with substances such as LSD and heroin) that people use for recreation, spiritual reasons, and psychological treatment. What interests researchers about 5-MeO-DMT is its rapid onset, short duration, and potency, which is different from other psychedelics.

Bufo Alvarius Research to Date

Rafael Lancelotta, MS, LPC, a PhD student at The Ohio State University College of Social Work and the co-author of several papers on 5-MeO-DMT, says, “It’s a rather potent compound, some would say it’s the most potent or most powerful psychedelic in the world, just because of how readily it dissolves the identification with self.”

Lancelotta has been involved in early research into 5-MeO-DMT, including an epidemiological study that examined patterns of use and reasons for consumption, a survey that explored the unintended improvements in depression and anxiety experienced by people who took the substance in a group setting, and a study that evaluated benefit enhancement strategies used by people taking 5-MeO-DMT. In addition, they were a co-author on two observational studies (one with toad secretions and one with synthetic 5-MeO-DMT) that found that people who took it in a naturalistic group setting reported a decrease in stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms.

Johannes G. Ramaekers, PhD, professor of psychopharmacology at Maastricht University in The Netherlands, who was also an author on these two papers, said that 5-MeO-DMT could have an advantage over other psychedelics because it acts quickly, breaks down quickly, and the effects are long-lasting, which may mean that it could require fewer treatments if it were to reach a therapeutic stage. “The paradigm has shifted to fewer administrations of a psychedelic with the expectation that this will generate a longer-lasting clinical response,” he said. Ramaekers is collaborating with the biopharmaceutical company GH Research, which is conducting clinical trials of 5-MeO-DMT in healthy adults and those with treatment-resistant depression (TRD).

An experience using 5-MeO-DMT, which typically lasts from several minutes up to an hour, could potentially one day be a shorter therapeutic session compared to LSD or psilocybin, for example, which can last for 6 or more hours. “It will be interesting to find out whether such a quick-acting psychedelic, that is also quickly dissolved in the body, can have any clinical utility,” Ramaekers said. “From a practical point of view, that would be convenient.”

The research community continues to gain an understanding of 5-MeO-DMT and is working toward identifying a potential medical use. Lancelotta explains that the next steps are to identify the toxicology in animals, and then move to studies in healthy humans to establish a healthy dose range before beginning studies in the clinical population.

Bufo Alvarius Use Trending

The substance has grown rapidly in popularity in recent years, and media reports often portray 5-MeO-DMT as a “miracle drug.” While it’s true that people have shared stories about incredibly positive experiences, it’s too soon to jump to conclusions about whether the substance will prove to have therapeutic value. “It’s an incredibly powerful compound that deserves a careful approach and a really careful study before we make any claims that it’s inherently good for something,” Lancelotta says.

“These are contextual medicines that depend highly on set and setting,” Lancelotta says, and that it is important to consider the larger context of the use of 5-MeO-DMT and other psychedelics. “These substances don’t just treat mental illness – they present an opportunity to see oneself, the world, and the experience of life from a different perspective.”

One downside to 5-MeO-DMT’s popularity is that the Sonoran Desert toad population is experiencing a decline, and this is having a negative impact on the ecosystem. “Unfortunately, the popularity of 5-MeO-DMT has led to the serious decimation of the populations of these toads,” Lancelotta says.

Bufo Alvarius Risks

Because of 5-MeO-DMT’s popularity, clinicians may encounter patients who are seeking experiences with this substance. Lancelotta says their approach with such a patient would be one of harm reduction. “As a clinician, you want to communicate to your client that of course you’re going to support them in the decision that they are going to make, and help your patient make an informed decision to ensure their safety,” they say.

When a Patient Asks to Try Toad Venom as a Psychedelic

Lancelotta offers these points to consider if a client or patient asks about toad venom:

  • Assess what resources the patient has: Is the patient more resourced, or is the patient in a more desperate place? Using this substance from a place of desperation can potentially cause more problems psychologically for someone.
  • Regarding the facilitator who is administering the substance: are they administering therapeutic doses or very high doses? Ask the patient if the dosage information has been communicated.
  • Is there a plan in place for how the patient is going to be supported before, during, and after the experience? (see also, how to administer psychedelic-assisted therapy)

“For me, I like to think there are a lot of alternatives to 5-MeO-DMT, especially right now. I think there are many other things available that can help alleviate their suffering while we’re evaluating where this substance fits in mental health treatment,” they say.

Dr. Ramaekers agrees with the harm reduction approach, adding, “Patients should be careful because 5-MeO-DMT is a very strong psychedelic. It doesn’t meet the usual expectations that people may have about psychedelics, meaning you don’t see hallucinations, but that the most common experience is the dissolving of the ego.”

He urges people to wait until more research can be done so they can take it safely in a medical context. “I think the best advice is to use what’s currently available and has been tested – compounds like ketamine that are available now – try those and see if they help. This way you know it is safe.”

Toad Medicine as a Mental Health Treatment: Perspectives from Psychedelics Researchers

Psycom Pro reached out to other researchers in the psychedelic space to ask their thoughts on 5-MeO-DMT and what clinicians can tell patients who ask about the substance.

Rachel Yehuda, PhD, director of the Center for Psychedelic Psychotherapy and Trauma Research at the Mount Sinai Health System said that her team is not planning studies of 5-MeO DMT at this time, except for in their cell work. While she thinks it’s a promising compound for future studies, she advises caution about using this compound until it is studied and approved. “While the ultimate benefits may be in how short-acting the effects of this psychedelic are, this is a classic psychedelic that offers an intense altered state,” she said.

Roger S. McIntyre, MD, FRCPC, is the CEO of Braxia Scientific, a medical research company offering IV ketamine therapy, and is a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto, as well as at several other universities.* Dr. McIntyre is not involved in research into 5-MeO-DMT, and he noted that academics and some companies are in the very early stages of studying it for TRD. He advises against anyone using 5-MeO-DMT until more research can be done. “This is a drug whose safety, tolerability, and efficacy are not established for the general population or for anyone with a mental disorder,” he said, “it is dangerous to take any substance unless it has been proven to be safe and offers some therapeutic benefit.”

*Of note, Dr. McIntyre’s other positions include chairman and executive director at the Brain and Cognition Discovery Foundation (BCDF), Toronto; director and chair of the Scientific Advisory Board for the  Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), Chicago; professor and Nanshan Scholar, Guangzhou Medical University, Guangzhou, China; adjunct professor at the College of Medicine, Korea University, Seoul; clinical professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University, Syracuse; clinical professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Neurosciences University of California School of Medicine, Riverside, California.

 

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Last Updated: Oct 18, 2021