Toad venom to beat the blues

3 minute read

The mice in this study felt better and didn’t hallucinate, scientists assure us.

When it comes to living happily ever after, those fairytale funsters the Brothers Grimm might have been on to something with their frog-kissing caper.

That’s if US researchers who’ve been playing around with toad venom as a potential treatment for depression and anxiety can safely upscale their findings from mouse studies to human trials.

It has been known for some time now that some psychedelic compounds, most notably LSD, can be effective treatments for mental illnesses.  And in Australia, the TGA surprised many by last year approving the use of psilocybin – the hallucinogen found in magic mushrooms – for use in treatment-resistant depression. 

What these researcher from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, have done is to modify the psychedelic found in the venom of Colorado River toad, to remove the hallucinogenic effects while retaining the positive interaction with the brain receptors – at least in mice, that is.

Publishing in the journal Nature this week, the researchers say they investigated the mechanism by which the hallucinogen 5-MeO-DMT interacts with a serotonin receptor called 5-HT1A.

By examining the structure and modifying specific sites in the compound they say they were able to evaluate its potential as a therapeutic agent by performing tests in mouse models of depression.

“When tested against LSD and existing 5-HT1A agonists in clinical use, the compound was found to produce similar antidepressant-like activity. Importantly, this effect was accomplished without the hallucinogenic effects of the unaltered compound,” the scientists said in a media release.

“These findings provide clarity on the ways in which this type of psychedelic can modulate the receptors in the brains of mammals and suggest a potential avenue for the development of medications for neuropsychiatric disorders,” they added.

We really have no idea how you can tell if a mouse is depressed, or indeed hallucinating, but we are going to take their word for it.

Does this research suggest those German folklorists might have been channelling some ancient mental health wisdom with their telling of the tale of the Frog Prince? While not all frogs are toads, all toads are frogs, so we reckon the kissing and living happily ever after analogy still works.   

On the other hand, in the earliest version of the Grimm tale the princess actually smashes the frog against a wall in order to turn the critter into a handsome prince.

Which sounds like a bit of a bad trip all round and not very Disney at all. 

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