Revisiting Wasson’s Soma : Exploring the Effects of Preparation on the Chemistry of Amanita muscaria.
Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 2010, 42, (4), 499-506
In 1968 R. Gordon Wasson first proposed his groundbreaking theory identifying Soma, the hallucinogenic sacrament of the Vedas, as the classic spotted fairy tale mushroom – Amanita muscaria. While Wasson’s theory is compelling on many levels he neglected to explain how the pressing and filtering of Soma, as described in the Rig Veda, supported his theory of Soma’s identity. This omission has led to several criticisms of his theory, including: (1) that such an elaborate process of extraction and preparation should be unnecessary if Soma were a mushroom; and (2) that no procedure of preparation is known to reliably reduce or eliminate the often unpleasant effects of Amanita muscaria. In order to address these specific criticisms over 600 anecdotal accounts of Amanita muscaria inebriation and poisonings were collected and analyzed to determine the impact of preparation on Amanita muscaria inebriation. The findings of this study demonstrated that the effects of Amanita muscaria were related to the type of preparation employed, and that the often toxic effects of Amanita muscaria were considerably reduced by preparations that paralleled those described for Soma in the Rig Veda. Before addressing this analysis, however, it is important to establish a foundational understanding of the chemistry of Amanita muscaria, as it is currently understood, and to understand Wasson’s ideas around preparation and the criticisms that have been leveled against this portion of his theory.
The pharmacology of Amanita muscaria is not entirely understood. Two primary compounds, ibotenic acid and muscimol, are known to occur in pharmacologically active levels and are partially, if not entirely, responsible for Amanita muscaria’s psychoactive effects. Another notable constituent of Amanita muscaria is muscarine. Muscarine is a cholinergic agonist which produces significant physiological changes in [*500] sufficient doses, but is not known to produce psychoactive effects and does not contribute to the psychoactivity of Amanita muscaria. Muscazone, a compound related to ibotenic acid, has also been reported from Amanita muscaria, but may simply be a by-product of procedures used to isolate ibotenic acid (Catalfomo & Eugster 1970). The psychoactivity of muscazone is unknown, but is considered doubtful (Ott 1993). There is also evidence that the degradation of ibotenic acid results in the production of another, as of yet unidentified, compound (Ott 1976).
Ibotenic acid is the most abundant of the principal compounds, and easily degrades into muscimol through the loss of a carboxyl group. Dehydration of the mushroom is the easiest way to promote decarboxylation of ibotenic acid to muscimol. It has been suggested that heating or cooking may also promote degradation of ibotenic acid due to its low stability (Catalfomo & Eugster 1970). Jonathan Ott (1976) has found that ibotenic acid decarboxylates to muscimol when exposed to acidic conditions, and suggested that ibotenic acid may be converted to muscimol in the acidic environment of the stomach. Interestingly, most ibotenic acid passes through the system unmetabolized and may be reingested in the form of urine to prolong its psychoactive effect. Ibotenic acid is a water soluble compound, but is apparently difficult to dissolve in cold water (Catalfomo & Eugster 1970).
Dr. Scott Chilton (1975), a specialist on mushroom toxins, detailed the following effects from his experiments with pure ibotenic acid: unsteadiness, dizziness, narrowed field of vision, mild visual spasms, muscular twitches, and sleep. Dr. Chilton reported no actual hallucinations from his experiments. According to Chilton, 53 mg was sufficient to produce psychoactive effects, while a dose of 93 mg produced a strong inebriation, including a brief bout of vomiting. Peter G. Waser, a Professor at the University of Zurich, has also reported on his experimentation with a low dose of ibotenic acid. With 20 mg, Waser (1979) reported experiencing flushing, lassitude, and sleep. The psychoactivity of ibotenic acid has been pegged at 1 mg/kg (Ott 1993), making Waser’s dose a very light one. It is not clear whether ibotenic acid itself is psychoactive, or whether the psychoactivity is caused purely by the decarboxylation product of ibotenic acid, muscimol (Ott 1993).
Muscimol is 5 to 10 times more potent than ibotenic acid, and is likely the primary contributor to the psychoactive effects of Amanita muscaria intoxication. Muscimol is a salt and is very soluble in water. It is also a thermostable compound, and will not degrade with cooking or boiling. There is some uncertainty as to whether muscimol occurs in fresh specimens of Amanita muscaria, or whether it only appears once drying and decarboxylation of ibotenic acid commences (Catalfomo & Eugster 1970). There is still heavy speculation that other, as of yet unidentified, compounds may contribute to the intoxicating properties of Amanita muscaria.
Waser, experimenting with 15 mg of muscimol, reported the following effects:
“After a phase of stimulation, concentration became more difficult. Vision was altered by endlessly repetitional echopictures of situations a few minutes before…I felt sometimes as if I had lost my legs, but never had hallucinations as vivid and colourful as with LSD “(Waser 1979, p. 435).