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For thousands of years frankincense was one of the main ingredients of the incense burned in the Temples in Jerusalem and at other rituals, of other religions and peoples, from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, extending as far as Greece. Buddhism and Christianity refer to frankincense as a substance that can affect a person's mood. In the Bible it is mentioned in the list of ingredients used to make the incense that burned when the priests entered the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple.

In an attempt to explain why it was necessary to use incense, Maimonides wrote that the Temple was in effect a giant slaughterhouse. According to him, the incense was needed to cover up the strong odor emanating from the blood of the sacrifices, the seared meat and other odors that wafted through the Sanctuary.

But frankincense resin was not just used for the incense, says Dr. Avraham Shemesh, of the Ariel University Center of Samaria. In rabbinic literature, it is mentioned among the minahot, the afternoon offerings made at the Temple. Such offerings, brought on behalf of a sotah (a woman suspected of infidelity), for example, contained frankincense. Apparently, this ingredient was meant to have a psychological affect.

Shemesh, who specializes in the history of medical science, also notes that according to rabbinic literature, someone sentenced to death is given wine laced with a bit of frankincense before the execution, "so he would become confused." Maimonides claimed that the wine was given to the convict in order to get him drunk, and Rashi (a medieval biblical and Talmudic commentator) explains that the frankincense was given to convicts so they would not worry. In other words, he emphasizes frankincense's calming effect.

Giving mice a high

It was precisely this calming effect, already known in ancient times, that led groups of researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Ariel University Center and partners in the United States to try to develop a drug to treat depression and anxiety out of the active ingredient in frankincense resin. In biblical times, frankincense plants grew near the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea basin. Today, hardly any frankincense trees remain in Israel. The largest concentrations can be found in eastern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and India.

Arieh Moussaieff, whose doctoral thesis also researches frankincense, traveled to Ethiopia to bring back frankincense tree resin, from which the active substance is derived. Despite the plethora of information, dating from the Middle Ages, on how to use frankincense to influence a person's state of mind, frankincense resin's use as a drug to counter depression and anxiety was discovered by chance. The head of the research team, Prof. Esther Fride of Ariel University Center, says that when research began, it was known that frankincense has some anti-inflammatory qualities. Under the guidance of Prof. Raphael Mechoulam of Hebrew University, Moussaieff had already identified the biochemical mechanism responsible for this activity.

Fride and her colleagues attempted to back up the hypothesis regarding the substance's (incensole acetate) anti-inflammatory qualities in animals. When incensole acetate was given to mice, it did have an anti-inflammatory effect; at the same time, it also significantly improved their mood. "We saw that the frankincense gave the mice a high," says Fride, whose lab also researches the therapeutic use of cannabis.

After discovering frankincense's impact on mice, the researchers began looking into whether it acts as an anti-depressant or anxiety-suppressant in mice. It was indeed found to act in such a manner, but it works using a mechanism that was unknown until now. "There are many plants that contain ingredients with a psychoactive effect," Fride says. "There are opiate plants and there are plants that affect dopamine, serotonin and similar substances that regulate the brain's activity. The substances in these plants work using special receptors. It turns out that the active component in frankincense acts via a receptor that is hardly known in brain science. What is known is that this receptor, known as TRPV3, is found in nerves located beneath the skin and responds to a sensation of warmth."

The research group, whose members also include Moussaieff, Nikolai Gobshtis of the Ariel University Center, Prof. Esther Shohami, Mechoulam and Dr. Neta Rimmerman of the Weizmann Institute of Science, found that the TRPV3 receptor in the brain plays a role in mood regulation and reacts to the active ingredient in frankincense. Their findings were presented at last Wednesday's Judea and Samaria Research Conference, held at the Ariel University Center. The conference was organized in conjunction with the Samaria and Jordan Valley Regional Research and Development Center.

The researchers, who published an article on frankincense's psychoactive effect in the May issue of The FASEB [Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology] Journal, hope that the unknown mechanism they discovered will allow them to develop a new drug to treat those suffering from depression and anxiety-related disorders, without the side effects typical of existing drugs, among them weight gain and sexual dysfunction. These drugs also tend to cause addiction.

The active ingredient in frankincense uses a different mechanism than that of available drugs, which is why the researchers estimate that it has the potential to develop anti-depressants and anxiety-suppressing drugs that are free of such side effects. At present, the effects of frankincense are being studied in trials on mice. If these trials show no signs of side effects, the researchers will proceed by studying the substance's impact on humans.