Ayahuasca is part of a class of chemical compounds called psychedelics that have recently been subject to intense scrutiny from the medical and scientific communities. As drug reform efforts have swept across the country, looser prohibitionist policies have allowed researchers to finally study psychedelics and their effects without fear of legal persecution.
The result is a growing body of research indicating that psychedelics such as ayahuasca, psilocybin and ketamine can aid in the treatment of various mental health disorders. This led to a significant surge in psychedelic research as big pharma, and other investors threw their funds into studies to further determine the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and develop psychedelic-assisted therapies.
One key area of this research is gaining a deep understanding of how psychedelics such as ayahuasca deliver their profound mental health benefits. Although we know that hallucinogenics can act on the body to alleviate various health conditions, we don’t fully understand the underlying mechanisms that allow psychedelics to deliver their benefits.
Scientists now seek to understand how ayahuasca, a plant-based psychedelic that has been used for centuries in South America for religious and therapeutic purposes, acts on the brain. By studying scans of brains on a cocktail of ayahuasca that contains DMT, the researchers found that the psychedelic has a major impact on several regions across the brain. More specifically, it acted strongly on brain regions that play a significant role in memory, language, planning, imagination and complex decision-making.
The researchers noted that the psychedelic cocktail allowed the regions of the brain that help us perceive reality to become hyperconnected and made communication much more fluid, flexible and chaotic. Led by Imperial College London head of DMT research Chris Timmermann, the research team provided 20 healthy volunteers with a placebo and 20 mg of injected DMT on separate visits. They then recorded the volunteers’ brain activity before, during and after being dosed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG).
University of California professor of neurology and psychiatry Robin Carhart-Harris says that the dose used in the study was “incredibly potent,” causing people to “leave this world” and emerge into another immersive and incredibly complex world. He said the showed them that DMT makes basic brain networks less distinct by breaking them down. It also aided in the breakdown of inhibitory rhythms in the brain and allowed brain activity to become “more entropic or information-rich,” Carhart-Harris said.
Timmerman said that patients who had more intense psychedelic experiences showed more hyper-connection in areas of the brain that conjure reality. Although the research gave scientists an unprecedented view of the brain while under the influence of DMT and ayahuasca, the researchers posit that we still have more to learn. We have just scratched the surface of how DMT dramatically alters consciousness, and more research is needed to provide even deeper insight into the psychedelic’s underlying mechanisms.
As various enterprises such as Compass Pathways PLC (NASDAQ: CMPS) conduct their psychedelic drug-development programs, plenty more will be unearthed about the specific ways through which these different substances bring about the mental health benefits that they have been linked to.
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