Untangling the Medical Misinformation Around Adrenochrome

By: Jennifer Walker-Journey  | 

Adrenochrome graphic
Adrenochrome has been linked to schizophrenia treatments and the LSD counterculture movement. Now QAnon conspiracy theorists say it's part of a child sex-trafficking cult. So what is the truth behind this chemical compound? HowStuffWorks

If you've ever heard of adrenochrome, chances are you've been told some pretty lofty tales about the drug. In truth, adrenochrome is a rather innocuous chemical compound produced by the oxidation of the body's stress hormone adrenaline, also called epinephrine.

To better understand adrenochrome and how it become rather infamous in recent years, it's good to know a little background about epinephrine.

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Adrenochrome and Epinephrine

When you encounter a stressful, exciting, dangerous or threatening situation, the adrenal glands and some central nervous system neurons quickly release adrenaline (epinephrine) into the blood stream. This triggers the body's "fight or flight" response, which gives you the ability to quickly escape a predator or respond to a threat.

Shortly after adrenaline was discovered in 1901, it was found to have medical uses as well. Today, it's artificially synthesized and used to treat myriad medical conditions. For example, epinephrine is the active ingredient in the EpiPen, the autoinjector used in emergencies to treat serious allergic reactions or anaphylaxis. Epinephrine is also the primary drug used to reverse cardiac arrest. And it's sometimes administered to patients during acute asthma attacks or applied to wounds to slow bleeding.

Adrenochrome, on the other hand, "doesn't have any approved indications in the United States," says Dr. Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist, emergency physician and assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. "There's no available evidence to show that adrenochrome has any of the same efficacy [as epinephrine]. It has been studied, but from what I can tell it's never been shown to work at least as well as epinephrine."

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Research on Adrenochrome

With little evidence of its medical benefit, adrenochrome has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for any uses. "Obviously, epinephrine would be the preferred and recommended agent between the two," Marino says. But another oxidation product of adrenaline called carbazochrome is available in other countries as a blood clotting agent.

Synthetic adrenochrome can be purchased in the U.S. from some biotechnology companies for research purposes only. And while recent studies have been conducted, the most popularized research dates back more than 70 years.

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Weird Science

In the early 1950s, Canadian psychiatrists Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer began working under the assumption posed by some researchers at the time that schizophrenia may be triggered by an excess of adrenaline. This drew Osmond and Hoffer's attention to derivatives of adrenaline, specifically adrenochrome.

Hoffer then decided he'd experiment with the hormone after which he claimed to have experienced schizophrenic symptoms (i.e., hallucinations and delusions). And thus, Osmond and Hoffer's "Adrenochrome Hypothesis" linking schizophrenia to an abnormal metabolism of adrenochrome was born.

It's important to note that around this same time, Osmond and Hoffer were also beginning to embark on new research investigating the potential therapeutic benefits of drugs such as LSD and mescaline, therapies that also had the potential to cause those so-called schizophrenic symptoms in otherwise healthy adults. (Osmond would later coin the term "psychedelics" to refer to hallucinogens.)

Reflecting back on the "Adrenochrome Hypothesis" in an article published in 1990 in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, the researchers said, "All we did know [about adrenochrome] was that it was readily formed by oxidation of adrenalin [sic] to a red compound in solution ... But we did suspected [sic] it might be a hallucinogen because ... it resembled a few known hallucinogens like ... LSD and ibogaine."

Adrenochrome's psychedelic properties, however, never actually panned out. And, as intriguing as those studies were, "they have been largely discredited due to, primarily, methodological failures. And I think they were unable to ever replicate any of the initial findings that were popularized," Marino says.

But, before the research on adrenochrome was thoroughly debunked, the drug was lumped into the same category — at least in the layman's eyes — as LSD and other psychedelic therapies, which set it up for celebrity status in popular culture.

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Pop Culture's Take

Adrenochrome's association with hallucinogens earned it a glimmer of fame during the psychedelic movement. It was mentioned in Aldous Huxley's 1954 book "The Doors of Perception;" was featured under the pseudonym "drenchrom" in Anthony Burgess' dystopian satire "A Clockwork Orange;" and had a cameo in Frank Herbert's "Destination: Void."

child sex trafficking protest
A protester marches while holding a sign that says "No More Adrenochrome" at a protest in St. Paul, Minnesota, against child sex trafficking.
Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Perhaps the compound's greatest claim to fame is when gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, in his psychedelic classic "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," had a character describe the effects of adrenochrome as making "pure mescaline seem like ginger beer." Thompson later admitted to inflating adrenochrome's "high."

Some of those seduced by the tales of adrenochrome's psychedelic properties reported their rude awakening after trying the drug. Spanish writer Eduardo Hidalgo Downing, in his memoir "Adrenochrome and Other Mythical Drugs," said adrenochrome had "no value in psychoactive terms," adding it would be more useful to guzzle a cup of coffee instead. A few posters on the harm-reduction nonprofit site Erowid.org have also debunked the hallucinogenic claims.

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Conspiracy Theories Abound

After shedding its rap as a psychedelic drug, adrenochrome was poised to fall somewhat into obscurity until a few years ago when the far-right wing group QAnon built some rather disturbing conspiracy theories around the compound. Supporters claim that the blood of kidnapped children is being harvested by Hollywood celebrities and the "liberal elite" for adrenochrome, which they believe has psychedelic properties and holds the promise of immortality.

Despite those theories being repeatedly batted down, they keep popping up like Whac-A-Mole. "Unfortunately," Marino says, "it's the exciting, scary news headlines that are the ones people remember and not those that turn out to be true."

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