Peyote Use by Native Americans Doesn't Damage Brain

Its use in religious practices deemed safe by Harvard-affiliated researchers

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By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Nov. 4, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- In an example of modern science catching up to ancient wisdom, researchers have found that Native Americans who use peyote as a regular part of their religious practices show no evidence of brain damage or psychological problems.

Quite the contrary, these individuals scored higher on several indicators of mental health than members of the same tribe who did not use peyote and who were not members of the Native American Church.

Navajo experts expressed delight at the findings.

"It's heartwarming," said Victor J. Clyde, a judge with the Arizona state courts and the former vice president of the Native American Church of North America. "Our elders told us that this beauty is good for us, and will never do us harm. The government never really took their word, and even prohibited peyote for a while."

The authors of the study, appearing in the Nov. 4 issue of Biological Psychiatry and partially funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, cautioned, however, that this does not mean that peyote is necessarily good for everybody in all situations.

"We must be careful not to extrapolate this finding to other situations," said Dr. Harrison G. Pope Jr., senior author of the study and director of the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at the McLean Hospital in Boston. "These are people who are taking hallucinogenic substances under religious sacrament, under special types of conditions that cannot be extrapolated to those taking illicit hallucinogenic substances on the street." McLean is affiliated with Harvard University.

Indeed, hallucinogens sold on the street typically are not mescaline, but LSD or other substances.

Peyote is the name of a cactus that contains mescaline, a hallucinogen. The substance is used, legally, as part of Native American Church (NAC) ceremonies. Peyote is also supposed to be effective as a treatment for alcoholism when used "in the NAC context," the study said.

Despite its widespread use within this population, the scientific literature on peyote is sparse.

"There are no studies that have generated any data on the outcome of the human consumption of peyote for religious purposes or for illegal purposes," said Dr. John Halpern, lead author of the study and an investigator with McLean's Biological Psychiatry Laboratory.

About one-third of 255,000 enrolled members of the Navajo tribe are also NAC members, providing a unique opportunity to study the compound and its effects.

"If they are faithful to the church, they don't ingest any illicit substances ever," Halpern said. "They may have taken peyote in a religious context hundreds or thousands of times, and have never abused alcohol or cocaine. It's a distinctly pure population."

The challenge was enlisting the support and cooperation of the Navajo tribe. This was, Pope said, "profoundly difficult."

Halpern traveled dozens of times to Navajo country in New Mexico and Arizona over a period of years trying to establish a rapport. "It was a tremendous amount of groundwork," he acknowledged. "Native Americans are sure sick of reservation drive-bys, someone who comes on to the reservation, never explains how the research could be of use, then, when the results are obtained, never coming back. I learned to hate the word 'research.' "

"Many of the people said, 'We already know we're fine. Tell us something we don't know,'" Halpern said. "They looked at peyote as something given to them by God for the benefit of all natives as medicine with a capital M."

Clyde, who was vice-president of the Native American Church of Navajoland at the time, confirmed this. "When Halpern came around, members were reluctant because of past experience," he said. "They said, 'Are you going to put us under a microscope?' "

Pope recalled a turning point about two years into this effort. He and Halpern were sitting in a rented conference room at the Best Western in Farmington, N.M., just off the reservation, trying to explain one of a battery of neuropsychological tests to about 20 "skeptical and slightly hostile-looking Indians." Pope tried out some recently acquired Navajo words, and soon they were all laughing. "I hope you're not going to be the one administering the test," they said.

In the end, Halpern, Pope and their team were able to recruit 61 NAC members who had ingested peyote at least 100 times, as well as two control groups: 36 individuals with past alcohol problems, and 79 individuals reporting virtually no peyote or other substance use.

The people who had used peyote scored better on several measures of the Rand Mental Health Inventory (RMHI), which is used to diagnose psychological problems and ascertain overall mental health, than the other two groups.

The group of former alcoholics showed significant deficits on every scale of the RMHI, and on two neuropsychological measures.

"We do not pretend that peyote is the reason for the higher mental health score, but that it's a much tighter community, and group support and all of the other positive values account for it," Pope said.

According to Halpern, NAC leadership is "quite ecstatic" about the findings, although they come as no surprise.

Still, Harvard-backed research could prove useful if government committees, politicians and the public start questioning the safety of peyote.

It could even help some careers. About 10,000 NAC members are enrolled in the U.S. military and, currently, are prohibited from having nuclear-warhead responsibilities, even if they say they will not take peyote while serving. Somebody who takes LSD and lies about it, on the other hand, can have such responsibilities, Halpern said.

"Indians who are exclusively honest are excluded because of their honesty, so this may have important bearings even outside of the nuclear issue for those Native Americans who are serving," Halpern added. "Native Americans serve in the military more than any other race percentage-wise."

The findings could also help doctors who don't know anything about the subject. And the research could aid in court cases, for instance, involving a white mother and an Indian father who want to take a child to a peyote meeting just to be blessed.

As for the Navajos themselves, Halpern and Pope made sure they heard about the findings before the rest of the world.

"I really took it quite seriously about making sure that no reservation drive-by was done by us," Halpern said. "I wanted to show that I had completed what I promised I would do, and that they would be the first to get to hear about it, which has happened."

"It does reassure," added Clyde. "The statement made by the elders, the government was not going to listen to them, but this carries weight."

More information

Visit this link for more on the Native American Church.

SOURCES: Harrison G. Pope Jr., M.D., director, Biological Psychiatry Laboratory, McLean Hospital, Boston; John Halpern, M.D., investigator, Biological Psychiatry Laboratory, McLean Hospital, Boston; Victor J. Clyde, former vice president, Native American Church of North America; Nov. 4, 2005, Biological Psychiatry

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