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To get clean, addicts are turning to a dangerous hallucinogen
Some opioid addicts are flying outside of the U.S. for addiction treatment using the psychedelic drug ibogaine. It has yet to be studied comprehensively, and it comes with its own set of risks.
- The opioid crisis in the U.S. isn't showing any signs of slowing down, and tens of thousands of addicts die every year from opioid abuse.
- Some centers outside of the U.S. are treating opioid addiction with ibogaine, a powerful hallucinatory drug.
- The drug is understudied and known to be toxic to humans, but some addicts are willing to take the risk.
Across the U.S., opioid addicts are boarding planes to fly to Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, and other countries in pursuit of a high-risk, high-reward treatment for their addiction. This treatment is illegal in the U.S. — it's caused deaths before, and the research on its efficacy is still in its infancy. It's called ibogaine, a hallucinatory, toxic drug extracted from the root bark of the iboga tree in Western Africa.
It's no surprise, that opioid addicts are going to these extreme lengths to get clean. The rehabilitation community claims that it only has an overall 30% success rate for treating opioid addiction, and there's evidence that even that modest number is inflated. Meanwhile, deaths from heroin use have increased seven-fold between 2002 and 2017. Even if the treatment is dangerous and untested, for some, the risk is worth it.
Ibogaine produces powerful hallucinations for four to six hours. As a psychedelic, its most distinguishing characteristic is its oneirogenic quality, meaning that it produces a dream-like sensation. Users have reported it feels like "a waking dream." During an interview with the New York Times, one user said that after taking the drug, "My face opened up like a zipper […] It's like somebody pulled my face apart and looked into me. Then a white light came on, and suddenly I saw all these faces, like on a movie screen." Although it might not sound like it, the user said, "It was pleasurable, relaxing."
In the Bwiti religion in Western Africa, the drug is believed to enable communication with the dead. In light doses, Gabonese hunters use the drug as a stimulant to assist in chasing their prey, and it was sold as a stimulant in France between 1930 and 1960 before it was banned.
While its stimulating and psychedelic effects are interesting, opioid addicts aren't traveling to far flung locations just for a hallucinatory experience. They're traveling for what is perhaps the drug's least-understood property: its apparent ability to kill addiction in its tracks. Users report that taking ibogaine both reduces cravings and relieves the pain of withdrawal from a number of drugs. However, most of the evidence for this effect is anecdotal, beginning with an account by a man called Howard Lotsof.
Lotsof was a researcher who, at the age of 19, was addicted to heroin. In pursuit of a recreational hallucinogenic trip, Lotsof took the then-obscure ibogaine along with five other friends, also heroin addicts. After the experience, they all noted a significant decrease in their cravings for heroin and in the severity of their withdrawals. After this experience, Lotsof became something of an ibogaine evangelist, authoring several research papers and developing a number of patents related to the drug's use for addiction treatment. His story is one of many anecdotal reports of ibogaine's efficacy.
However, there has also been some empirical evidence to support these reports. Human studies have been rare, but studies on animals hooked on cocaine and opioids consistently show that ibogaine administration reduces the animals' cravings for their drug of choice.
The limited number of human trials have shown some promise too; in most of these studies, participants reported they abstained from opioids for at least a few weeks, and many others reported abstaining for more than a year. Unfortunately, there isn't more data out there on ibogaine's effect on humans, and there's good reason why.
Ibogaine is produced from the root powder of the iboga tree (pictured above).
Aside from its psychedelic and addiction-quashing properties, ibogaine comes with a major downside. Sometimes, it will produce a potent cardiac condition called long QT syndrome, in which a portion of the heartbeat is elongated, which can cause fainting, palpitations, seizures, or sudden death.
In 1999, researchers conducted a human study on the effects of ibogaine on opioid withdrawal. Out of the 33 participants, one 24-year-old woman complained of muscle aches and nausea 17 hours after receiving ibogaine. An hour later, she suffered from respiratory failure, and died soon after. Participants have died in other studies as well, generally due to cardiac complications. In fact, ibogaine is estimated to have a mortality rate of 1 in 300.
Considering this relatively high mortality rate, ibogaine has been approached with caution both from the scientific community and from the more reputable ibogaine treatment clinics. Unfortunately, reputable ibogaine treatment clinics are few and far between, and, considering the risks involved, trained medical staff and proximity to a hospital are a must.
Although the empirical evidence is unclear and the risks are high, opioid addicts are still boarding planes to fly to countries where they can receive this treatment. It's difficult to see whether the risk of dying from ibogaine outweighs the risk of dying from opioid addiction. Then again, there were 63,600 deaths from drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2016. What's more, it's impossible to quantify how valuable a sober life might be to an addict. Ultimately, all we can say about ibogaine is that more research is needed to definitively confirm or deny its efficacy. Until then, it'll be hard to stop desperate people from doing desperate things.
- A New Definition of Addiction Makes Rehab More Effective ›
- Chemists tweak psychedelic ibogaine to treat addiction - Big Think ›
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.