A Czech scientific team recently successfully completed the second Neuron expedition into the depths of the Amazon jungle to investigate traditional indigenous rituals with the psychedelic drink ayahuasca. The main goal of the research mission was to find out how ayahuasca used in a traditional setting during rituals and in the presence of a shaman affects the brain, and how strong of an influence the environment itself has on the psychedelic experience and its healing potential. Field research will contribute to understanding the role of the environment on the efficacy of ayahuasca and its potential use for healing in the context of Western medicine.
During Easter, an eight-member interdisciplinary research team led by renowned Czech psychiatrist and neuroscientist Tomáš Páleníček travelled to the Mayantuaycu centre in Peru equipped with seven EEG machines. The leadership of the expedition wants to compare the effect of ayahuasca used in a traditional setting with the effect of its laboratory equivalent in a clinical setting. By using modern portable EEG equipment and the so-calld "hyperscanning", the scientists have the opportunity to study not only the effect of ayahuasca on brain activity, but especially the interaction between the participants in the ritual and the synchronisation of their brain activity. This innovative technique opens the door to understanding the dynamics of the group process and the interconnectedness of the participants' consciousness during the psychedelic experience.
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"A careful analysis of the collected data is currently underway. So far we have fully analysed phenomenological scales that describe the nature of the experience. The first interesting finding is that the comparison of the ayahuasca experience at the level of the whole group does not differ dramatically from the experience of the same group of volunteers who underwent intoxication with psilocybin in the NIDH laboratory," says Tomas Páleníček
While this suggests stability of effect of psychedelics regardless of place and time, the content of the experience varied considerably based on the reports written. This could suggest that the phenomenological scales may not have sufficient sensitivity to distinguish the details of the experiences, however, this too is subject to further analysis and investigation. Detailed analysis and evaluation of all data taken during the expedition should be completed in September this year.
"Over the next year, we want to complete the measurement of 20 subjects simultaneously during a ceremony with the Huni Kui Tribe. It can be expected that everything will be much more complicated compared to the work in Mayantuaycu. There will be no electricity on site and no shelters to protect the equipment from the rain. And recording 20 people at the same time during the ritual means thorough training of the team," says Tomáš Páleníček.
The data collected from all the expeditions will bring the researchers closer to answering the question of whether the ritual itself, its environment and traditional shamanic chants (and other aspects of the rituals) are the ones that influence the content of the experience, which could mean that they may also influence the healing effect of ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is now being investigated for potential therapeutic use in the treatment of depression, in the treatment of addictions, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and for some other psychological difficulties. Research into the therapeutic effects of psychedelic substances is currently being conducted directly in the Czech Republic at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Psychedelics Research Centre.
Under the leadership of Professor Jiří Horáček and Dr Tomáš Páleníček, two large-scale clinical trials of a completely unique design are currently underway there, comparing the effect of psilocybin and ketamine for the treatment of depression in patients in whom other treatments have failed and in patients who have developed depression in connection with a cancer diagnosis. The reason for the study is the rapid onset of action of both psychedelics and the potential for long-term positive changes when treatment is accompanied by psychotherapy. Patients are currently being recruited for both studies.
Research on the use of psychedelics in psychotherapy can be carried out in the Czech Republic thanks to the financial support of the PSYRES The Psychedelics Research Foundation, which also covered about half of the costs of the Neuron expedition.
"The mission of PSYRES is to inspire and support research into the effects of psychedelics on the human body and consciousness, with the aim of using their full potential, minimizing risks, obtaining effective and safe treatment options and making them available to all who need them," says Jana Bednářová, Director of PSYRES, adding, "At the moment, there is a lack of tens of millions CZK in research into psychedelics in the Czech Republic. We need to open door to more studies."
Treatment of one patient in the study costs approximately 180,000 to 420,000 CZK, depending on the design and complexity of the study. In total, the cost of a single study is between 15 and 30 million CZK. However, anyone can support the research through the PSYRES Foundation.
An expedition of Czech scientists led by Tomáš Paleníček, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues, equipped with portable EEG brain activity measuring devices, is heading straight into the heart of the Amazon rainforest to take part in a ritual centered on the psychoactive drink ayahuasca. With the consent of the indigenous Huni Kuin and Ashaninka tribes, they are conducting extensive scientific research into the neurobiology of ayahuasca used in traditional settings, which may herald a fundamental shift in our perception of reality. The first expedition took place in 2019. During this expedition, the scientists and a film crew visited the town of Santa Rosa de Purus and the Mayantuaycu centre in northern Brazil, primarily testing technical equipment in extreme conditions. The second expedition took place in the spring of 2023, again in Mayantuac, to test the possibilities of so-called hyperscanning, i.e. recording multiple people simultaneously during a ritual. The fully processed data from the measurements will be available to scientists in the autumn of 2023. The Neuron expedition is funded by grants from the PSYRES Foundation and the Neuron Foundation and would not have been possible without the support of Ant Neuro, which lent portable EEG devices. The next research trip is planned by the expedition leader for 2024.
Prof. Tania Re (PSYRES)