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Adrenochrome: Fantastical psychedelic or pure fantasy?

Of all the weird theories that came out of the insane Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracies, ‘adrenochrome harvesting‘ may be one of the most bizarre (and that’s saying something): the claim that the ‘cabal’ of evil globalists/Satanists/Democrats/name your bogeyman that rules the world are abducting, torturing and killing children in order to gather a chemical from their blood/glands to use as a reality-altering drug or elixir of youth.

As crazy as the idea sounds, it serves a useful purpose for the survival of the conspiracy theory itself: it uses the age-old canard of the ‘blood libel‘ (originally used against Jewish people) to motivate hate against a certain group, simply by using the idea of children being hurt to trigger an emotional response. Protection of children is such a primal human urge that it seems to over-ride the brain’s logic circuits, with conspiracy theorists willing to overlook quite obvious flaws in the conspiracy theory once they’ve been hooked by the emotional bait.

But it should be pointed out that adrenochrome is actually the name of a real chemical/drug, being derived by the oxidation of the hormone and medication adrenaline. And blurring the lines between fiction and reality even further, in a fascinating thread on Twitter, neurobiologist, chemist, pharmacologist, and writer Dr Andrew Gallimore explains that adrenochrome – which “boasts perhaps the coolest name of any drug” – is name-dropped “in some major works of 20th century literature” as well:

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson claimed that adrenochrome “makes pure mescaline seem like ginger beer. You’ll go completely crazy if you take too much.”

And, alongside Synthemesc (mescaline) and Vellocet (likely amphetamine), Drencrom was one the three varieties of drug-laced milks (Moloko Plus) served at the Korova Milk Bar in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. However, Burgess only claimed that it would “sharpen you up”, which is probably much closer to reality than Thompson’s hyperbole…

Adrenochrome even gets a mention in Aldous Huxley’s classic mescaline trip report, The Doors of Perception, claiming it can produce “many of the symptoms observed in mescalin intoxication”, although Huxley never actually tried the drug.

Scene from the movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas featuring adrenochrome

Indeed, Thompson’s account may be to blame as one of the major origin points for the conspiracy theory, as in his book he states that “there’s only one source for this stuff, the adrenalin glands from a living human body.”

In his Twitter thread, Gallimore – who has recently released a new book, Reality Switch Technologies, which details how psychedelic molecules interface with the human brain and “switch the brain’s reality channel” – then discusses the scientific background of adrenochrome.

The ‘chrome’ part of its name, Gallimore notes, isn’t because it is related to the element chromium, but actually refers to the molecule’s chromophore, which gives it a deep purple colour. “Chromophores are parts of molecules with delocalised electrons that selectively absorb light of a specific frequency,” Gallimore explains, “giving the molecules the colour of the light that’s reflected.”

Gallimore then points out that scientists also investigated the effects of adrenochrome back in the mid-20th century:

Although undoubtedly exaggerated for fictional purposes, Thompson’s claim that adrenochrome would make you crazy is not entirely fantastical, and the history of adrenochrome in psychopharmacology has some pedigree, with some major names studying the drug during the 1950-60s.

Abram Hoffer, who worked with Humphry Osmond on the effects & potential uses of LSD in the early years, hypothesised that schizophrenia was caused by errant metabolism of adrenaline leading to an excess of the adrenochrome in the brains of psychotics (“Adrenochrome hypothesis”).

Hoffer reported detecting adrenochrome in the blood of normal individuals, but DMT-discoverer Stephen Szara failed to replicate the results in his own subsequent study. The hypothesis has now almost completely fallen out of favour.

To test the physiological and psychological effects of adrenochrome, Hoffer administered the molecule to a range of living organisms, from spiders to fish to birds and, finally, to mammals, including humans. Results were unimpressive compared to the known psychedelics of the time, such as LSD and mescaline, and generally restricted to increased energy and agitation, laughter, anxiety and paranoia, with some mild perceptual changes.

However, a 1957 German study reported “very impressive” visual hallucinations of colour and movement, and Stan Grof completed a small placebo-controlled trial in 1963 with both healthy and “neurotic” patients. Grof described a “psychotic reaction” in all subjects given 30mg adrenochrome, including thought disturbances and minor visual, auditory, and tactile hallucinations.

Unfortunately, these studies all date back to the 1950s and 60s, and there’s little appetite for further research, given the selection of more interesting psychedelics in the 21st century.

Erowid’s encyclopedic trip report database, however, contains just five adrenochrome reports, Gallimore points out – with none of them being particularly enticing or impressive experiences. “A lot like the come-down from a 4 day meth binge,” one person reports. Another noted incapacitating headaches for days afterwards.

“Overall,” Gallimore concludes, “it seems highly unlikely that adrenochrome will be making a comeback as a drug of choice and there are certainly far more reliable psychedelic molecules available for those with a penchant for interesting states of consciousness.”

Perhaps most importantly though, in terms of the emergence of adrenochrome as a key element of the Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracy theories, Gallimore points out a simple but damning fact (for the conspiracy theory) about the chemical: “Adrenochrome is simple to synthesise from adrenaline, which is readily available, and certainly doesn’t need to be extracted from the blood or adrenal glands of children.” In short, he says, “killing children to harvest adrenochrome would be like scraping the paint from the Sistine Chapel to harvest lead.”

If you’re interested in learning more about how psychedelic molecules work in the brain, you can order Reality Switch Technologies from Amazon or directly from Andrew Gallimore’s website .

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