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Scientists See Research Value in Salvia

Parents of teenagers are becoming concerned about an emerging drug of abuse that, until recently, few had ever heard of: Salvia divinorum.

Salvia is a member of the sage family. It's also a cousin to the popular flowering salvia plants that many of us may have in our gardens.

Scientific researchers say the public is right to be concerned about the herb's growing abuse. But some say salvia is also showing promise in legitimate laboratory research.

Salvia divinorum's active ingredient, Salvinorin A, is a powerful hallucinogen, "as potent as LSD, and essentially, the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogenic drug," says Dr. Bryan Roth, a biochemist and neuroscientist at Case Western Reserve University.

Roth also directs the National Institute of Mental Health's Psychoactive Drug Screening Program. Three years ago, he and others in his Cleveland lab discovered how Salvinorin A affects the brain.

"What we found is quite remarkable and unprecedented among naturally occurring drugs of abuse," Roth says. "This compound seems to have absolute specificity for a single receptor site on the brain."

Studies have shown that Salvinorin A works in the same place in the brain as morphine and related pain reducers known as opioids.

"There's been some showing that by modulating opioid receptors, you can potentially treat stimulant abuse," says Thomas Prisinzano, a University of Iowa professor in the division of medicinal and natural products chemistry.

Most studies of salvia's effect on the brain have been on rodents, and no one knows yet whether the results can be duplicated in humans. Such scientific developments still may be a long way off.

Other medical, biochemical and pharmacological scientists have published early studies suggesting that research on Salvia divinorum and Salvinorin A might eventually lead to new drugs that could be used to treat Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and other diseases.

"The bottom line is, we really don't know enough and we need to know more," Prisinzano says. "The field is really beginning to grow, and we are beginning to know and understand more of what Salvia and Salvinorin A are able to do in the body."

He and others worry that classifying Salvia as a Schedule One drug of abuse -- a class that includes marijuana and LSD -- could slow or even halt promising research. Yet because of salvia's powerful effects, few believe that the drug shouldn't be regulated at all.

"Even experienced hallucinogen users say that the effects of Salvia divinorum are qualitatively and quantitatively different than any other hallucinogen that they have ever taken," Roth says. "It appears to cause an experience that we have dubbed 'spacio-temporal dislocation.'"

In other words, if the dose is strong enough, users take an instantaneous trip to another time and place, an experience many first-time users of salvia find too intense, disturbing and even frightening. Those who try salvia often don't like it and won't try it again.

"Most people who do it hoping to have just an interesting high find it confusing and disappointing," says Daniel Siebert, who has researched Salvia divinorum extensively and urges its responsible use. "It's not something that's fun to do. It doesn't have a stimulating effect. It doesn't really have a euphoric effect."

Siebert worries that salvia is being marketed to teens and young adults as producing a marijuana-like high, when nothing could be further from the truth. He thinks salvia should be regulated in the same way as alcohol -- and be kept strictly off-limits to teens.

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David Schaper
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.