Ayahuasca’s profound effect on the brain can help cure depression and improve planning, memory and language, says new study

Humans have been consuming ayahuasca for at least 1,000 years. In 2019, archaeologists in Bolivia found a leather pouch containing traces of DMT, cocaine, and other psychoactive substances in a cave. The pouch dates from AD900 to 1170. The archaeologists also unearthed little llama bone spatulas, wooden snuffing tablets and a brightly coloured headband.

How does the ayahuasca brew impact the human brain?

The ayahuasca brew is so strong that those who have dared try it report the following:

  • Hallucinations
  • Near-death experiences
  • Contact with higher-dimensional beings
  • Life-transforming experiences in alternative realities

By monitoring the brain on DMT, or dimethyltryptamine, the psychedelic compound found in Psychotria viridis, the flowering shrub in ayahuasca, scientists have made major progress in understanding how these drugs can impact the brain.

Specifically, the recordings reveal a profound impact across the brain, especially in planning, language, memory, complex decision-making and imagination.

‘People describe leaving this world and breaking through into another’

“At the dose we use, it is incredibly potent,” Robin Carhart-Harris, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco reports to the Guardian.

“People describe leaving this world and breaking through into another that is incredibly immersive and richly complex, sometimes being populated by other beings that they feel might hold special power over them, like gods.”

“What we have seen is that DMT breaks down the basic networks of the brain, causing them to become less distinct from each other. We also see the major rhythms of the brain – that serve a largely inhibitory, constraining function – break down, and in concert, brain activity becomes more entropic or information-rich.”

Close-up of African American teenage boy having a session with mental health professional at counselling center.
Image: © Drazen Zigic | iStock

How did scientists conduct the study?

The scientists recorded the participants’ brain activity before, during and after ayahuasca took hold.

The results, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provide a really in-depth understanding of how psychedelics impact the human brian.

To elaborate, the brain’s normal hierarchical organisation breaks down, the electrical activity becomes anarchic, and connectivity between different parts of the brain increases massively. “The stronger the intensity of the experience, the more hyperconnected were those brain areas,” adds Timmermann.

DMT is administered in combination with psychotherapy to treat depression

Promising results from early clinical trials treating patients with depression show that DMT, in combination with psychotherapy, can be very successful.

‘DMT is short-acting, so it’s a very flexible tool compared with psilocybin’

“DMT is short-acting, so it’s a very flexible tool compared with psilocybin [the active ingredient in magic mushrooms] and LSD which can last for six to 10 hours,” Timmermann explains.

Researchers suspect that there is plenty more to learn: “We suspect that while the newer, more evolved aspects of the brain dysregulate under DMT, older systems in the brain may be disinhibited,” concludes Carhart-Harris. “A similar kind of thing happens in dreaming. This is just the beginning in cracking the question of how DMT works to alter consciousness so dramatically.”

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