How Psychedelic Drugs Might Make Asthma a Thing of the Past

Will psychedelic drugs replace inhalers in the future to treat asthma?

Asthma is one of those afflictions that most of us will agree has dogged the human race for far too long. Anyone out there who suffers from asthma, or knows someone that does, knows only too well how painful the condition can be to watch—and how frustrating it is to endure.

It makes sense, then, that researchers have been turning over every rock in sight to look for a remedy. That search has taken us to some surprising places—and, most recently, to some “trippy” ones as well.

A psychedelic drug known as DOI was recently found to be effective in treating asthma in mice. It’s a good start, and it holds a lot of promise for similar treatment in humans. But the history of DOI is as strange as it is promising. Let’s take a look.

Psychedelic Drugs: A (Short) History

DOI (or, as it’s known in the scientific community, 2.5-dimethoxy-4-iodoamphetamine) was developed in the 1980’s by one Alexander Shulgin. Shulgin passed away last year at the age of 88, which means he unfortunately will not get to see DOI’s potential fully realised. Nevertheless, Shulgin was prolific, and during his lifetime he worked on streamlining the synthesis of MDMA and helped introduce “hundreds” of psychedelic drugs, all based on the chemical structure of more familiar compounds like mescaline and LSD.

While psychedelic drugs occupy a place in modern society that is, at best, fraught with controversy, Shulgin’s inventions have nevertheless inspired chemists and researchers to not only study the brain, but also to look into the ways that these compounds might affect the rest of the body, including other tissues and organs.

Psychedelics and Serotonin

The key to the importance of DOI lies in its ability to activate serotonin receptors, of which there are many in the human body, and which exist in a wide variety of different tissues and organs. Some of these tissues—such as those in lungs and muscle cells—play a role in asthma symptoms.

Charles Nichols, who calls Louisiana State University home, is one of the researchers looking into the potential of DOI in asthma treatment. What they’re studying is the role that serotonin plays in the behaviour of the brain and in the inflammation of the human respiratory system. A key finding was that DOI could effectively reduce the inflammation found in lung tissue. At first, their results were limited only to petri dish samples, but that wasn’t enough. Eventually, they took their research to the next step and began testing on mice—an important milestone for any scientific inquiry. If you’re scientifically inclined, you can read about all of the details here, courtesy of the American Psychological Society.

But here’s the gist of it: after “sensitising” the mice, using a certain chicken protein, to an asthma-like condition, the mice were then treated with aerosolised DOI to test its effectiveness. After two days, the scientists tested their respiratory function and found that the mice treated with DOI could breathe without difficulty. Not only that, but the majority of asthma symptoms were nowhere to be seen; the mice exhibited none of the usual mucus production, nor lung inflammation that asthma sufferers are only too familiar with.

By now you’re probably wondering: did the mice have a psychedelic “experience” while all this testing was going on? Thankfully, the answer is no; the DOI dosage used was only about one one-hundredth the amount that would be required to bring on a “trip.” This is encouraging; it suggests that similar treatments could be used in humans without the fear of triggering behavioural symptoms.

A Sea Change in Medicine

The success of this, admittedly preliminary, study is surely encouraging for asthma patients, but more than that, it’s a kind of minor sea change for medicine as a whole: psychedelic drugs have, for the most part, been known almost exclusively for their effect on the human brain. The fact that they can have such a dramatic impact on other tissues in the body could be revelatory, particularly as the researchers move toward human trials.

However, with all this talk of treating asthma symptoms with psychedelics, not to mention the fact that the medical marijuana industry is gaining momentum in a big way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you to seek help if you (or someone you know) are experiencing symptoms of substance abuse or dependency. You can find inspiration in books, use physical fitness to reduce the stresses of dependency, and, of course, lean on friends and family for support.

Regardless, it’s encouraging to know that we’re continually finding new ways to use familiar chemicals and compounds—particularly if it means turning potentially harmful compounds into medical tools. It’s a brave new world, indeed.

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