Medical research is always on the hunt for life-changing treatments that provide patients with results. Gabon is home to a fruit that has garnered a keen interest worldwide for its remarkable properties. Tabernanthe iboga or better known as iboga is an evergreen rainforest shrub native to Central Africa and is famous for its medicinal and psychedelic effects. However, western medicine currently debates the ethical cultivation and use of this African plant, indicating that it can treat addiction.
Iboga contains a psychoactive substance called ibogaine which, in large quantities, can be toxic. A member of the Apocynaceae family indigenous to Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of Congo, the Iboga tree is used within the Bwiti spiritual practices in these regions. The alkaloid-containing roots or bark are used in various ceremonies to create a near-death experience in significant doses during ceremonies. In addition, the plant is used in smaller amounts to maintain alertness during hunting.
The psychoactive effects of ibogaine include two phases: 1) the visionary phase, which is the dreamlike, hallucination stage. This stage lasts for 4-6 hours. 2) the introspection phase “can allow people to conquer their fears and negative emotions.” Adverse effects of ibogaine ingestion include ataxia which is poor muscle control that causes clumsy voluntary movements and makes walking and standing without assistance hard. More effects are dry mouth, nausea, and vomiting. Ibogaine was classified as a schedule 1 controlled substance in the United States in the late 1960s. However, there are independent treatment clinics in Mexico, Canada, the Netherlands, South Africa, and New Zealand.
The first botanical description of the Tabernanthe iboga plant was in 1889. The extract from the plant was sold in France in the form of Lambarène from the 1930s to 1960s as a mental and physical stimulant. Psychedelic therapy is expected to grow into a nearly $11 billion industry over the next five years. However, ibogaine is prohibited in countries like the United States. Therefore, such clinics as those in Mexico operate mostly unaccredited and unregulated In the West, ibogaine is used to treat opioid addictions resulting in self-treated opioid addicts indicating a reduced desire to sustain opiate abuse. The history of pharmaceutically distributed ibogaine dates back to the early 1960s. In 1981, a European manufacturer produced 44 kg of iboga extract, which was mass purchased by Carl Waltenburg, who distributed it under the name “Indra extract” and used it to treat heroin addicts in Christiania, Denmark.
Currently, companies are working to harness the anti-addiction effects of natural ibogaine without the adverse effects. David E Olson, co-founder and chief innovation officer of Delix Therapeutics, told The Guardian, “We have a hypothesis that the ultimate change that is most important for the therapeutic effects of the compound are changes in structural neuroplasticity in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex,” He added that, “A single compound that can work across substance use disorders and can potentially produce very long-lasting effects after a single administration, and that you’re not taking daily … it’s something that is changing the wiring of the brain.”
However, there is an ongoing debate about pharmaceutical companies’ ethical harvesting of the iboga plant. This indigenous plant of Gabon is an integral part of the country’s culture. These companies require the native knowledge of the Gabonese citizens who are surrounded by the plant daily and know better about its usage. A 57-year-old Gabonese gardener Christophe Bibang from Libreville, Gabon, stresses the importance of telling authentic iboga to the fake. He said, “If the bark snaps, it’s probably iboga. If it bends, it’s a potentially lethal fake. But when it’s purchased in powder form, it’s more difficult to tell.”