Neurobiology of Ayahuasca and its Antidepressant Potential

Expedition to Ayahuasca and the Indians in the heart of the Amazon

What is the role of traditional ritual in the neurobiology of the effect of psychedelics? Czech scientists are looking for the answer to this question directly in the Amazon jungle. The aim of the research is to examine the effects of the hallucinogenic drink Ayahuasca during the traditional rituals of the Amazon Indians. In order to perform the research, they have joined up with other foreign neuroscientists, anthropologists, and the Huni Kui and Ashaninka Indians, who are based in Brazil and Peru. The research will answer questions about the effect of the Ayahuasca ritual on mood, experience and interpersonal relationships, and what role it plays in changes in brain activity during and after the ritual. Using state-of-the-art EEG technologies, researchers will directly measure the interconnection of the consciousness of the participants during the ritual using so-called hyperscanning. The project opens the door to the first official cooperation between Czech scientists and indigenous Indians. The expedition was initially supported by the Neuron Endowment Fund, and its entire course will be captured thanks to the support of the Czech Cinematographic Fund through the lens of a professional documentary camera, which will result in a documentary entitled “Doctor on a Trip”.

AYAHUASCA: What role does the setting play in the experience?

Neurobiology of the effects of Ayahuasca used in a traditional ritual setting: behavioral and EEG studies aimed at examining changes in brain activity, neuronal synchronization and long-term effects on mood, well-being, harmony with nature, and interpersonal connection.

International cooperation project of Dr. Tomáš Páleníček, PhD., with his team from the National Institute of Mental Health of the Czech Republic and Eduard Ekman Schenberg, PhD. from Instituto Plantando Consciência in Brazil, with the Huni Kui Indians from the Amazon rainforest and with the technological support of ANT-Neuro from Germany. The expedition aims to examine the role of the traditional context of the Ayahuasca ritual in the Amazon in terms of acute effects on the human brain and long-term effects on mood, experience, relationship to nature and interpersonal relationships. The aim of the expedition is also to create a popular science documentary. The project received support in the Czech Republic as the “Neuron Expedition” from the endowment fund of the same name (https://www.nfneuron.cz/cs).

 

PREMISE: THE CONTEXT MATTERS

The effects of psychedelics depend to a large extent on two variables: the mindset of the individual and the setting in which the substance is taken. It is known that insufficient emphasis on mindset and setting may lead to an unpleasant experience with long-term negative consequences, such as long-term anxiety. On the contrary, a safe, controlled setting and management of a psychedelic experience in a traditional ritual context usually leads to long-term positive effects. This claim is supported by a recent study of psilocybin in depressed patients, and it was shown that the lower the anxiety during the psychedelic experience, the better the subsequent antidepressant effect. Altered states of consciousness caused by psychedelic substances may lead to a change in outlook on life, reality and personal problems and may even cause long-term changes in personality traits (for example, a recent study suggests an increase in “openness”). Many traditional sacred rituals using various forms of altered states of consciousness have survived to date, especially in Central and South America (Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, etc.), and many experts agree that in addition to the pharmacological effects of these substances, the traditional approach of shamans, the singing of ritual medical (prayer) songs called icaros and, of course, the already mentioned setting, also play an important role. It is these factors that have led us to study the effects of Ayahuasca in a traditional setting. Our aim is also to obtain data on possible therapeutic uses of Ayahuasca in the treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders.

 

AYAHUASCA

Ayahuasca is a traditional hallucinogenic drink used for millennia by the indigenous people of the Amazon for healing and spiritual rituals. In the language of the Huni Kui tribe, Ayahuasca is called Nixi Pae. Ayahuasca is prepared from various plants, but the main ingredients are Banisteriopsis caapi liana and Psychotria viridis, otherwise known as Chacruna. While hallucinogenic substances (especially dimethyltryptamine, DMT) are contained in P. viridis, B. Caapi contains their activators and vomiting agents. DMT belongs to the group of so-called serotonin psychedelics, is related to e.g. psilocybin contained in hallucinogenic mushrooms, and naturally occurs in low concentrations in the human brain. Recently, the therapeutic effects of Ayahuasca have been demonstrated in clinical settings in depressed patients resistant to established therapies. To date, however, no scientific information on the acute and long-term effects of Ayahuasca in a traditional context has been reported.

 

DESCRIPTION AND OBJECTIVES OF THE STUDY

The planned study will focus on the neuropsychological and neurobiological effects of Ayahuasca evaluated using psychometric scales and recording of electrical activity of the brain – electroencephalogram (EEG). Volunteers for the study will be approached directly from the participants in the ceremonies who will go to the Amazon for this purpose and participate in traditional rituals. Various types of Ayahuasca are administered during ceremonies, some are more psychoactive, others less so, some contain P. viridis, and others do not. Thanks to the knowledge of the composition of the type of Ayahuasca administered, we will be able to study the psychoactive effects similarly to a placebo-controlled study. The effects of Ayahuasca containing P. viridis will then be compared to a drink without this plant, i.e. a hallucinogenic version of the drink. The research also has a completely original intention, which is to measure the direct interaction between subjects and the shaman using so-called interbrain synchrony. The main objectives are to 1) evaluate the acute effects of Ayahuasca on brain activity and the connection of ceremony participants and shamans using EEG and 2) evaluate the long-term effect of Ayahuasca on mood, experience, inner happiness, connection with nature and human relationships.

 

We expect that the Ayahuasca containing P. Viridis will cause more significant changes in brain activity, entropy and connection, and will also have more noticeable positive effects on well-being, mood, harmony with nature and interconnectedness. We also assume that during the ceremony, the connection between the participants and the shaman will increase (increase in interbrain synchrony) and this will be more pronounced when consuming the psychoactive form of the drink. The study will also focus on the importance of the traditional context in relation to the intensity and effects of Ayahuasca. These new findings may be the key to understanding how these traditional “medicines” may be applied in practice in the treatment of mental disorders.

News

Newsletter

Receive news about foundation activities and about news from the research of psychedelics.