Key takeaways.

  • Do non-hallucinogenic psychedelics exist?

    They don't exactly exist in nature, but they can be carefully engineered based on currently existing, natural, hallucinogenic psychedelics.

  • What are they called and what do they do?

    AAZ-A-154 and tabernanthalog are the two non-hallucinogenic substances that have been created. They interact with serotonin receptors in such a way that they create similar cortical neuroplasticity as conventional psychedelics.

  • Are non-hallucinogenic psychedelics therapeutic?

    We're not exactly sure yet. There haven't been any human trials but animal studies have been promising. Some scientists still believe that the subjective experience is what drives the therapeutic effect of mushrooms, but other scientists believe the psychedelic experience isn't necessary at all.

Believe it or not, researchers have identified a psychedelic substance that doesn’t produce hallucinations. At first glance, this doesn’t seem possible. Isn’t the “trip” precisely what makes a psychedelic, a psychedelic? According to scientists, apparently not. The hunt for non-hallucinogenic psychedelics is about hunting for compounds that affect the serotonin receptor in the same way as other hallucinogens.

Some scientists don’t believe it’s possible for non-hallucinogenic psychedelics to produce the same outcomes. That’s to say, they believe the trippy effects are actually part of the therapy. But other scientists are seduced by the concept because it reduces the chance of recreational use and means people can take it unsupervised.

At the University of California, Lin Tian engineered a device that would alert a sensor in the presence of a hallucinogenic substance precisely when it starts a relationship with a serotonin receptor. This is what the researchers were using to hone in on these non-hallucinogenic psychedelics. But even the device is noteworthy, having uses in the future of psychedelic medicine even without the arrival of these new psychedelic compounds.

In this article, we’re having a look at this new, bizarre research, why it’s both exciting and weird, and what the chances are of it taking hold in the future.

AAZ-A-154 — The non-hallucinogenic psychedelic.

With Lin Tian’s device, David Olson has been getting up close and personal with hallucinogenic and non-hallucinogenic compounds. At the University of California, he’s looking for substances that interact with the serotonin receptor the same way as psychedelic substances like psilocybin. One substance in particular has caught Olson’s attention — AAZ-A-154. It’s non-hallucinogenic, but still interacts with the serotonin receptor.

So far, Olson says it’s shown great potential in animal studies, having an impact similar to conventional hallucinogenic psychedelics. AAZ-A-154 is still undergoing safety and testing before it can be used in any early stage human trials.

AAZ-A-154 isn’t the only non-hallucinogenic psychedelic substance making its way through laboratories. Olson has been busy at work making a substance called tabernanthalog, a compound that is supposed to mimic the therapeutic effects of ibogaine. It doesn’t have the psychedelic effects and has lower toxicity. Again, trials are still in the making.

Why would a non-hallucinogenic psychedelic be useful?

An illustration of different species of hallucinogenic and non-hallucinogenic psychedelics and mushrooms.

Some of us might find the concept of a non-hallucinogenic psychedelic a little bit… unnerving. Maybe it is, but there’s some medical appeal to the notion. Olson’s curiosity is piqued by the concept of a non-hallucinogenic because of the way it might mitigate issues that patients face with the hallucinogenic kind.

For example, to use magic mushrooms in the medical setting, a patient first has to prepare for the session, go to his doctor and spend at least eight hours there before coming home. It must be professionally supervised. A non-hallucinogenic substance would remove the need for supervision, according to Olson.

Theoretically, this could also reduce costs. An 8 or 9 hour session with your doctor is probably not going to look like a normal check-up bill. Removing the hallucinogenic aspect would make it less necessary to have professional supervision during the experience.

Critics of the movement towards psychedelic-assisted therapy worry that the psychedelic effects create a greater potential for recreational use of the substance. Given that psychedelics generally have a low addiction potential, we’re not sure why this is of major concern. But this could be another benefit of AAZ-A-154 and other non-hallucinogenic psychedelics.

Will non-hallucinogenic psychedelics be therapeutic?

A digital artwork of a buddha sitting on a giant magic mushroom in the sky with a hole cut out of his middle. A concept of meditation and psychedelics.

There are varying schools of thought when it comes to the hallucinogenic effect of psychedelics. Some scientists are very focused on the neurobiology of psychedelics and how they affect brain receptors. There are other scientists who believe that the subjective experience is actually a driver of the therapeutic effects, although it’s really difficult to prove and explain this with science. 

Fortunately, there’s been a little research on the topic. In 2018, a large group of researchers at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine took to researching the psilocybin-induced mystical experience and its effects on therapy. They used a low-dose and high-dose to separate psilocybin experiences, where the higher dose was much more likely to bring about the mystical experience. They found the high dose group produced more persistent, long term effects of life purpose, gratitude, forgiveness, death transcendence, faith and coping. The researchers concluded that the psilocybin-induced mystical experience could increase healthy psychological function at a trait level.

There’s also the fact that based on anecdotal evidence, so many people attribute the reduction of their symptoms to the psychological breakthrough that the experience was able to give them. Most of the people who use psychedelics rate these experiences as among the most profound in their lives and this seems to be an important factor into their therapeutic value.

On the other hand, Olson shows that carefully engineered substances are able to produce the same level of cortical neuroplasticity through activation of the 5-H2TA receptor. Olson believes that these are able to produce the same outcomes for clinical depression, alcohol use disorder, and heroin use disorder — although these things haven’t been shown in clinical trials yet.

Essentially, Olson believes that even though psychedelics might have all the therapeutic potential in the world in theory, they won’t in practice. Their cost as a treatment option, both in terms of time and money, mean that they might not ever really be widespread treatments for depression. While he has a valid point, it’s not clear whether his idea will ever kick off the ground either.

Would you try a non-hallucinogenic psychedelic as a form of therapy? Why or why not? We’d love to hear from you in the comments. 

2 thoughts on “Scientists Hone in on Non-Hallucinogenic Psychedelics: What’s the Point?

  1. Great little article, I like how your team is now doing this. I’d like to share the article though, is there a link or share button?

    1. Thanks Sean! We really appreciate your suggestion for a sharing button. We'll make sure to add that as part of our next website update. Stay tuned for it so you can share the love with your community, too!

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