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This article is from the In-Depth Report Science and the Holidays
See Inside August/September 2008

Incense May Act As a Psychoactive Drug during Religious Ceremony

An ingredient in frankincense eases anxiety and elevates mood



David Lovere / iStockPhoto

Burning incense has accompanied religious ceremonies since ancient times. Its fragrant presence may be more than symbolic, however—a May 20 study in the FASEB journal suggests that a chemical commonly found in incense may elevate mood.

Raphael Mechoulam of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his col­leagues injected mice with incensole acetate, a component of the resin of the Boswellia plant. This resin, better known as frankincense, is an ingredient in Middle Eastern incense. The chemical reduced anxiety and depressive symptoms in the mice. In the anxiety test, for example, injected animals were less fearful of open spaces as compared with mice that were given a placebo.

Incensole acetate is a mild drug: the chemical proved to be 10 times less potent than Valium in its reduction of anxiety, Mechoulam says. During religious ceremonies, the people inhaling the most smoke—the officiants burning the incense—are probably the only ones who feel its effects, he adds. Incensole acetate may lead to new treatments for anxiety and depression if more potent forms can be synthesized and if it successfully lifts moods in human trials.

Editor's Note: This story was originally printed with the title "Mass Appeal"

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