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Advances in Understanding Frankincense

Perhaps you’ve wondered what frankincense really is, and why it’s included in the list of items the Three Wise Men carried as gifts.  Well frankincense is indeed a type of incense, and had been used as a psychoactive drug since ancient times.  Coming from the Bosellia (or Frankincense) tree, the incense is the resin extracted from slits in the bark (Ratsch, 2005).  It was a

highly valued commodity and may have been a part of long caravans from it's origins in Somalia and southern Arabia. 

The frankincense resin contains numerous essential oils, and in 2008 researchers isolated incensole acetate (IA) and tested it on mice (Moussaieff et al., 2008).  They found that IA activated the TRPV3 channels.  This may explain the apparent anxiolytic and antidepressive action of IA.

Some have also suggested that the resin contains chemicals that could, in theory react during either the burning or ingestion process to make THC.  Though efforts to find such a connection to THC have come up with nothing. 

So this means… The easily available (e.g. Amazon has it), and perfectly legal incense has been known to be a potent psychoactive drug since about the first civilizations left us records (Ratsch, 2005).  And now researchers are learning some exciting things about the nervous system by studying how it works, with the hope that perhaps new and better medicines can be made.  Are there campus implications? Probably. But so far there is little evidence that students are using it or experiencing negative consequences from it.  It does create a question however for campuses that may allow the burning of incense within their dormitories.  Discuss this on our facebook page and let us know your campus Frankincense policy.


Moussaieff, A., Rimmerman, N., Bregman, T., Straiker, A., Felder, C. C., Shoham, S., … Mechoulam, R. (2008). Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain. The FASEB Journal, 22(8), 3024–3034. doi:10.1096/fj.07-101865

Ratsch, C. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications. Park Street Press.