A pilot study has shown that ayahuasca may be a useful treatment for depression. Of course, the traditional Amazon herbal tea has been used as a healing medicine by shamans for hundreds of years, but it is being examined increasingly more serious by modern science. Researchers in Brazil did a clinical test on patients suffering from depression, and the results were sufficiently promising that a larger study is currently being planned to support the preliminary findings.

This work was reported recently in an article by Arran Frood that was published by Nature.com. Here are some highlights…

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 cancer2; MDMA (ecstasy) can alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder; and patients who experience debilitating cluster headaches have reported that LSD eases their symptoms.

Ayahuasca, a sacramental drink traditionally brewed from the bark of a jungle vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the leaves of a shrub (Psychotria viridis), contains ingredients that are illegal in most countries. But a booming ayahuasca industry has developed in South America, where its religious use is allowed, and where thousands of people each year head to rainforest retreats to sample its intense psychedelic insights.

Depression drink?

The brew has been studied by anthropologists, social scientists and theologians, but clinical research on ayahuasca has been limited to observation of its effects in mice and rats, and in healthy human volunteers3, including brain-imaging studies4 and retrospective surveys of past use5.

For the latest study, researchers led by Jaime Hallak, a neuroscientist at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, gave one mild dose of ayahuasca to six volunteers who had been diagnosed with mild to severe depression that was unresponsive to at least one conventional antidepressant drug. None had drunk ayahuasca before.

After their drink, the participants sat in a quiet, dimly lit room. Physicians used standard clinical questionnaires to track their depression symptoms. Improvements were seen in two or three hours (though the psychedelic effects of an oral dose take around five hours to wear off) — a rapid effect, as conventional antidepressants can take weeks to work. The benefits, which were statistically significant, continued to hold up in assessments over the next three weeks. Three of the participants vomited, a common side effect of ayahuasca, but otherwise the procedure was well tolerated, Hallak says.

“It is a proof of concept of what so many ritual ayahuasca users already know: ayahuasca can help one feel extra well, not just during the experience, but for up to days or weeks after,” says Brian Anderson, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the study but has published papers on the drink’s potential6. “The relationship between ayahuasca’s psychedelic effects and its therapeutic effects needs to be empirically studied,” he says.

James Stone, a psychiatrist at King’s College London who has studied the effects of psychoactive drugs on the brain, says that the study is interesting but should be viewed with caution because it had no placebo group. “Placebo response is a well-documented effect in clinical trials of antidepressants,” he says. “The only things that can really be concluded from this study are that it is tolerated by patients with depression, and in these people did not seem to have any serious side effects following a single dose.”

To read the full article online, please go to: http://www.nature.com/news/ayahuasca-psychedelic-tested-for-depression-1.17252

Only a few days ago we read about how ayahuasca is being used in a prison to treat men who had been convicted of violent crimes including rape and murder. It is hoped that the medicinal brew will show them the errors of their ways and help them to become rehabilitated. Interestingly, both that experiment and the one above took place in Brazil. We look forward to learning more about how twenty-first century science is supporting what Amazon shamans have known for hundreds of years about the therapeutic benefits of ayahuasca.