Amazonian Hallucinogen Could Be an Antidepressant

Drinking Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea, could change the concentration serotonin in the brain

A shaman collects roots to prepare ayahuasca in Iquitos, Peru. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis

Indigenous Amazonians have used long ayahuasca, a powerful psychedelic tea, in emotional healing rituals guided by shamans. Now, researchers are empirically exploring the brew’s effects. The plant contains compounds found in commercial antidepressants that change the brain’s concentration of serotonin—a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. And a pilot study indicates that an ayahuasca trip could provide therapeutic benefits to patients for whom commercial antidepressants don’t work.

The researchers gave small doses of the jungle drug to six clinically depressed participants. While the subjects were under the influence of the drug, the researchers tracked their symptoms, and, Popular Science reports, "they found that the symptoms of depression decreased three hours after taking ayahuasca (a typical trip lasts five hours) and [the subjects] felt the positive effects for up to three weeks."

Because the study group was so small, the findings should be taken with a grain of salt. But this isn’t the first time researchers have drawn connections between the use of recreational drugs and mental health.

From Nature:

The work forms part of a renaissance in studying the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelic or recreational drugs — research that was largely banned or restricted worldwide half a century ago. Ketamine, which is used medically as an anaesthetic, has shown promise as a fast-acting antidepressant; psilocybin, a hallucinogen found in ‘magic mushrooms’, can help to alleviate anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer; MDMA (ecstasy) can alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder; and patients who experience debilitating cluster headaches have reported that LSD eases their symptoms.

The researchers are now working on a larger-scale study of similar design to see if their findings hold true. Maybe there are reasons people have long claimed to benefit from hallucinogenic drugs, after all. 

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