When harmine was tested in Parkinson's disease: An historical episode circum 1930

Theodore L. SOURKES
Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Harmine is an indole alkaloid that had been identified in two plants: a Southern American vine, Banisteria caapi, and Asian rue, Peganum harmala. Both plants have been used in indigenous medicine, in some cases for their reputed hallucinogenic action; whether harmine is the active agent is not clear because other ingredients have always been present. Pharmacological studies of harmine began in Munich in 1895, and were later pursed elsewhere. Since 1911 the firm of E. Merck (Darmstadt) had an active programme of research in their department of alkaloid chemistry. Their source of harmine at that time was the Asian plant, but in 1926 they received some "yagé drug" from South America, from which they obtained a supply of harmine. Some of this went to Louis Lewin (1850-1929), the outstanding Berlin pharmacologist and toxicologist, and to Kurt Beringer (1893-1949), a privat-Dozent at the neurologic-psychiatric clinic of the University of Heidelberg, and an authority on hallucinogenic agents. Lewin's analysis of the pharmacological actions of harmine on the nervous system led him to try it in patients with Parkinson's disease. His apparent successes induced Beringer to test the compound also. Lewin filmed his results with three patients. The E. Merck Company made a film illustrating the chemistry and pharmacology of harmine, along with its effects in three Parkinsonian patients at the Heidelberg Clinic. The latter historic film will be shown. Harmine had a rapid rise to fame in the treatment of Parkinson's disease in Germany, and an equally rapid demise, the reasons for which will be discussed.

Research aided by a grant from the National Parkinson Foundation, Miami, Florida.

Session I -- Commended Papers
Monday, 12 June 2000, 9:30 - 10:00 am

Fifth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Providence, Rhode Island, USA