Psychedelic drugs like ayahuasca and ibogaine are gaining notoriety in mainstream medical circles as promising new treatments for conditions like depression and addiction.
But both drugs are powerful, unregulated and may be implicated in the death of billionaire Matthew Mellon who struggled with addiction.
A friend of Mellon’s family told Daily Mail Online that the banking heir suffered a heart attack and died shortly after a psychedelic ceremony in Mexico.
Mellon was supposed to be going to a rehab there, but he never checked in, according to the source.
More and more research, not to mention scores of personal anecdotes, extol the drug’s ability to treat even some of the toughest cases of addiction and depression as its advocates continue to push ayahuasca toward mainstream medicine.
But the connection between psychedelics and a high profile death like Mellon’s could call into question the acceptance being gained by drugs that some see as a last hope for the desperately depressed or addicted.
A source close to Matthew Mellon’s family told Daily Mail Online that the billionaire died of a heart attack shortly after taking part in a psychedelic drug ceremony
Depression, anxiety and addiction are all weighing on the lives of more Americans than ever before in history.
These conditions perhaps once went unaddressed because they were stigmatized, but now the federal government funds awareness campaigns and medical research to combat blights like mental illness and addiction.
In the US there are 14,500 drug addiction treatment facilities and one in every five adults takes at least one psychiatric drug.
But the numbers suggest that it’s not enough. Or, at least, that these treatments may not be the right ones for the millions still suffering.
The scientific community has taken notice and started to look with more seriousness at alternative treatments.
In the Amazon, ayahuasca is called ‘la medicina’ – the medicine – with utmost reverence. In the US, doctors are beginning to consider calling it the same.
Ayahuasca has long been used there for spiritual ceremonies with the intent of accessing. Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew that research suggests may help to treat depression
The psychotropic brew is made from a combination of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and one of several other vines that contain dimethyltryptamine (DMT) found in the Amazon rain forest.
The reportedly foul-tasting drink typically causes someone who has just drunk it to ‘purge’ or vomit up the drug, sometimes violently. It then induces intense hallucinations, lasting several hours.
The psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca, DMT, also exists in trace amounts in the human brain. Research suggests that it may be the metabolic waste of other neurochemicals.
Magnetic resonance images have revealed that the brain’s default mode network was less active in research subjects while they were experiencing the effects of ayahuasca.
The default mode network describes the regions of the brain that connected while a person is not actively paying attention to what is going on in the outside world.
The salience network, activated during attentive moments, however, was more active, even when the researchers were not giving their subjects outside stimuli.
The phenomenon is similar to what happens in the brain during meditation.
An area of the brain, called the post cingulate gyrus, was also less active during an ayahuasca experience. This, scientists think, could allow for greater ‘openness.’
The two components of the plant also act like on the brain in similar ways as two of the most common forms of antidepressant medications, which may explain its effects, according to Dr Draulio Barros de Araujo, who researches the drug in Brazil.
These theories inform research that has shown that ayahuasca may be helpful in treating depression very rapidly, but its links to addiction treatment are tenuous, at best, according to Dr Araujo.
In his studies, the brew itself has not had significant effects on people’s heart rates, but he say that the stressful situations encountered during an ayahuasca ceremony could be risky for someone who has a pre-existing heart condition.
Mellon posted on Instagram in 2016 calling his ibogaine experience a ‘spiritual crossing’
Ibogaine, on the other hand, is has not been very broadly shown to be effective against depression, but research suggests it may help people to break addictions. It con Ibogaine is sometimes referred to as ‘African ayahuasca,’ but comes from a different root.
Recently, a motion was put forth in Maryland to allow clinical testing of ibogaine on the heels of research that showed the drug’s promise for treating the opioid addiction that is devastating the state.
The motion failed, but ibogaine is thought to help block the effects of withdrawal and cravings, as well as having an antidepressant effect.
This, Dr Deborah Mash, who testified before the Maryland legislature makes ibogaine treatment ‘a very gentle way to detox of of opioids.’
‘It causes a kind of lucid dreaming where a person can become more introspective, which seems to be beneficial because it gives insight into destructive behavior,’ she says.
Ibogaine, she says, ‘seems to hit targets that are very important to regulating addiction in the brain.’
Dr Mash says that some patients seem to ‘have a rapid reset that’s likely due to the combined action of ibogaine and noribogaine and the lasting effects of the drug on these targeted sites within the addiction circuit of the brain.’
In this sense, it is ‘unlike methadone or suboxone because a single dose of ibogaine can make people ready for treatment,’ she says.
Despite the promise the drug has shown in her research, Dr Mash does not unilaterally condone its use for treating addiction – especially without the proper supervision.
‘If you are not skilled and a legitimate medical doctor who understands something about the investigational nature of the drug, this can have serious outcomes, and it has,’ says Dr Mash.
‘There have been deaths due to ibogaine and it’s always been because it was taken it in an unsafe setting and a lot of the sites for ibogaine are made up, so people don’t know if they are government-approved or staffed by legitimate medical doctors but people continue to put themselves in harms way because they are desperate,’ she adds.