NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – If the scent of burning incense helps you relax, a new animal study may help explain why.

In mice, scientists found, a component of frankincense appears to activate particular brain pathways to calm anxiety- and depression-related behavior.

Frankincense is an aromatic tree resin that has been used in religious ceremonies for millennia in the Middle East and Europe.

Now the new findings suggest a particular frankincense constituent, incensole acetate, could stand as a “novel” antidepressant/anti-anxiety agent, the study’s lead researcher told Reuters Health.

“Our results in animal models suggest that incensole acetate and its derivatives can be of value in the treatment of these disorders,” said Dr. Arieh Moussaieff, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.

What’s more, he and his colleagues report in the FASEB Journal, the findings implicate a new brain pathway in the regulation of depression and anxiety. The study showed that, when injected into mice, incensole acetate affects activity in a protein known as TRPV3.

In the skin, TRPV3 helps the body perceive warmth, but its role in the brain is poorly understood. This study suggests that, at least in mice, TRPV3 plays some part in regulating depression and anxiety — and, Moussaieff said, could serve as a new target for drug therapy.

However, he added, “this claim is based on animal models, and more work should be done before it can be established in humans with certainty.”

There are, of course, many antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs out there, Moussaieff and his colleagues note. But new options, with fewer side effects, are still needed, they say.

Moussaieff said his team will continue studying incensole acetate derivatives to try to design new medications with a lower risk of side effects.

SOURCE: The FASEB Journal, online May 20, 2008.