Religious leaders have contended for millennia that
burning incense is good for the soul. Now, biologists
have learned that it is good for our brains too. An
international team of scientists, including researchers
from Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University
in Jerusalem, describe how burning frankincense (resin
from the Boswellia plant) activates poorly understood
ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or
depression. This suggests that an entirely new class of
depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our
"In spite of information stemming from
ancient texts, constituents of Bosweilla had not been
investigated for psychoactivity," said Raphael
Mechoulam, one of the research study's co-authors. "We
found that incensole acetate, a Boswellia resin
constituent, when tested in mice lowers anxiety and
causes antidepressive-like behavior. Apparently, most
present day worshipers assume that incense burning has
only a symbolic meaning."
To determine incense's psychoactive effects, the
researchers administered incensole acetate to mice. They
found that the compound significantly affected areas in
brain areas known to be involved in emotions as well as
in nerve circuits that are affected by current anxiety
and depression drugs. Specifically, incensole acetate
activated a protein called TRPV3, which is present in
mammalian brains and also known to play a role in the
perception of warmth of the skin. When mice bred without
this protein were exposed to incensole acetate, the
compound had no effect on their brains.
"Perhaps Marx wasn't too wrong when he called religion
the opium of the people: morphine comes from poppies,
cannabinoids from marijuana, and LSD from mushrooms;
each of these has been used in one or another religious
ceremony." said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief
of The FASEB Journal. "Studies of how those psychoactive
drugs work have helped us understand modern
neurobiology. The discovery of how incensole acetate,
purified from frankincense, works on specific targets in
the brain should also help us understand diseases of the
nervous system. This study also provides a biological
explanation for millennia-old spiritual practices that
have persisted across time, distance, culture, language,
and religion--burning incense really does make you feel
warm and tingly all over!"
According to the National Institutes of Health, major
depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability
in the United States for people ages 15--44, affecting
approximately 14.8 million American adults. A less
severe form of depression, dysthymic disorder, affects
approximately 3.3 million American adults. Anxiety
disorders affect 40 million American adults, and
frequently co-occur with depressive disorders.
Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits
psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the
brain. Arieh Moussaieff, Neta Rimmerman, Tatiana
Bregman, Alex Straiker, Christian C. Felder, Shai
Shoham, Yoel Kashman, Susan M. Huang, Hyosang Lee,
Esther Shohami, Ken Mackie, Michael J. Caterina, J.
Michael Walker, Ester Fride, and Raphael Mechoulam.
Published online before print May 20, 2008 as doi:
Federation of American Societies for Experimental
Biology. "Burning Incense Is Psychoactive: New Class Of
Antidepressants Might Be Right Under Our Noses."
ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 May 2008.