Amazonian psychedelic may ease severe depression, new study shows

Jun 29, 2018, 01:51 PM

Leon” is a young Brazilian man who has long struggled with depression. He keeps an anonymous blog, in Portuguese, where he describes the challenge of living with a mental illness that affects some 300 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Leon is among the roughly 30 percent of those patients with treatment-resistant depression. Available antidepressant drugs like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors do not alleviate his depressed mood, fatigue, anxiety, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts. A new study may offer hope for Leon and others like him.

Our team of Brazilian scientists has conducted the first randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial of aya-why-sca – a psychedelic drink made of Amazonian plants. The results, recently published in the journal Psychological Medicine, suggest that ayahuasca can work for hard-to-treat depression. Ayahuasca, a word from the indigenous Quechua language, means “the vine of the spirits.” People in the Amazonian region of Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador have for centuries used ayahuasca for therapeutic and spiritual purposes. The medicinal beverage’s properties come from two plants. Banisteriopsis caapi, a vine that twists its way up to the treetops and across river banks of the Amazon basin, is boiled together with Psychotria viridis, a shrub whose leaves contain the pyschoactive molecule DMT. Starting in the 1930s, Brazilian religions were founded around the use of ayahuasca as a sacrament. By the 1980s, the ayahuasca ritual had spread to cities across Brazil and the world.

Ayahuasca first became legal for religious use in Brazil in 1987, after the country’s federal drug agency concluded that “religious group members” had seen “remarkable” benefits from taking it. Some people who drink ayahuasca describe feeling at peace with themselves, God and the universe. For our study, which took place at Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, researchers recruited 218 patients with depression. Twenty-nine of them were selected to participate because they had treatment-resistant depression and no history of psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, which ayahuasca use may aggravate. These 29 people were randomly assigned to undergo a single treatment session, in which they were given either ayahuasca or a placebo substance to drink. The placebo was a brownish liquid, bitter and sour to the taste, made of water, yeast, citric acid and caramel colorant. Zinc sulphate mimicked two well-known side effects of ayahuasca, nausea and vomiting.

The sessions took place in a hospital, though we designed the space like a quiet and comfortable living room. The acute effects of ayahuasca – which include dream-like visions, vomiting and intense introspection – last for about four hours. During this period, participants listened to two curated playlists, one featuring instrumental music and another with songs sung in Portuguese. Patients were monitored by two team members, who provided assistance to those experiencing anxiety during this intense emotional and physical experience. One day after the treatment session, we observed significant improvements in 50 percent of all patients, including reduced anxiety and improved mood.

A week later, 64 percent of the patients who had received ayahuasca still felt that their depression had eased. Just 27 percent of those in the placebo group showed such effects. Our findings support a 2015 Brazilian clinical trial on the potential of ayahuasca as an antidepressant. That study, led by Dr. Jaime Hallak of the University of São Paulo, likewise found that a single ayahuasca session had a fast-onset antidepressant effect. All 17 participants reported that depression symptoms diminished in the first hours after ayahuasca ingestion. The effect lasted 21 days. This study received significant attention from scientists. Its promising conclusions were limited, however, because there was no control group of patients who received...