Understanding 5-MeO-DMT: Historical use

July 11, 2022
March 11, 2021

Part Two: Animals

In a two-part blog series Beckley Psytech research scientist Anya Ermakova explores the history of indigenous use of 5-MeO-DMT, the psychedelic agent that is the focus of our lead research programme. In part one she looked at plants containing 5-MeO-DMT; this blog focuses on animals and, in particular, the Sonoran Desert Toad, where the compound occurs naturally.

Endogenous 5-MeO-DMT has been discovered (in very tiny quantities) in humans and rats, although its biological function, if any, is unknown. Yet it is the Sonoran Desert toad that has the highest concentration of any species in the animal kingdom – their gland secretions contain potent toxins that can kill animals that try to eat them.

The toad’s venom contains 15% to 30% 5-MeO-DMT, the exact quantity varying between individual animals. Collecting gland secretions from one toad yields on average 0.25-0.50g of dried venom, which is approximately 75mg 5-MeO-DMT, enough for about 10 doses for human patients. Toads use the venom as protection from predators, so in addition to tryptamines (5-MeO-DMT, DMT and bufotenine) it also contains cardiotoxins.

A remarkable animal

The Sonoran Desert toad is a remarkable amphibian. As its name suggests, it is found only in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico, Arizona and is very rare in California and New Mexico, USA. For most of the year toads stay in their burrows underground, but in late spring, when the rains come and the desert comes alive, they emerge to find mates. These toads are easily recognisable due to their large size and prominent parotoid glands, which secrete the milky venom.

Although it is possible to ‘milk’ the toads without harming them, in practice the procedure is very stressful for the animals, and reduces their defences against predators and can spread toad pathogens, like the deadly chytrid fungus or ranavirus. This is, in part, why we are working with synthetic 5-MeO-DMT.

Historical use and ‘toad medicine’

The history of the recreational/spiritual use of toad venom is fairly short, although speculation about the ritual use of toads has circulated in some anthropological literature. Toads feature in the iconography and mythology of the Mesoamerican cultures: among the Maya and the Olmec toads were the symbol of fertility and rain, and were often depicted symbolically. Their remains are present at many excavated sites, yet there is no conclusive evidence for the indigenous use of toads for their psychoactive properties, either from archaeological or ethnographic records.

Current ‘toad medicine circles’ are thought to be a relatively recent phenomenon tracing their origins to the publication of a booklet “Bufo alvarius: The Psychedelic Toad of the Sonoran Desert” in 1984. The author, Albert Most was the founder of the Church of the Toad of Light and pioneered spiritual use of the toad venom. He laid out detailed instructions on how to ‘milk’ the toads and then smoke their gland secretions.

Modern research

Thankfully, modern research is very different to the Church of the Toad of Light. Our lead research programme is exploring the use of synthetic 5-MeO-DMT to treat neuropsychiatric diseases. We are preparing to begin a Phase 1 clinical trial to explore the impact of the compound on treatment resistant depression and are very excited about the potential for our research.

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