The Neuroscience of Ayahuasca: A Drink and Your Brain

Ayahuasca is Silicon Valley’s latest drug choice, and for good reason. It’s going head-to-head with other psychedelics and showing that it’s worthy of more praise and attention.

Many scientists and health professionals have tested the psychoactive brew. Some have even had personal ayahuasca experiences, and they always come back with high praise because of its therapeutic effects.

Neuroscience is one interesting area of scientific research that ayahuasca seems to be getting lots of attention. So, what is neuroscience and what does it have to do with ayahuasca?
Well, why are scientists interested in ayahuasca in the first place?

The Neuroscience of Ayahuasca: How It Affects Your Brain

First, neuroscience is the study of how the brain works and how people think. It’s basically brain science.

But neuroscientists don’t just study human behavior and cognition, they delve deep into the structure and function of the brain and the whole nervous system.

Hence, the neuroscientific analysis of ayahuasca focuses on the neurological connections and disconnections stimulated by the psychoactive brew. It examines how ayahuasca affects perceptions, thoughts, decisions, emotions, motivations, actions, etc.

The latest neuroimaging study(1)https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0269881120909409 shows us how the brew impacts two important brain networks: the salience and default mode networks. The fMRI study looked at the effect of ayahuasca on mood and self-reference after 24 hours of drinking it.

The neuroscientists found that a single dose strengthened the neural connectivity between the salience network and diminished the connection between the default mode network. This led to a long-lasting effect on mood, motivation, and self-reference.

The 22-participant study is promising for mental disorders associated with mood changes and distorted self-identity. Participants also witnessed increased interoceptive awareness (i.e., the ability to sense one’s bodily sensations and internal state of the body).

The team also assessed the visual and sensorimotor networks to figure out the connection between ayahuasca and these networks. But there wasn’t a long-term difference between participants who took ayahuasca and placebo.

The only drawback of this positive study is the small sample of participants. The neuroscientists are more than eager to repeat it with far more people and equipment. They also want to examine people with specific mental health issues like clinical depression.

Other neuroscientific studies of ayahuasca focus more on what’s happening in the brain and nervous system during an ayahuasca session, not after.

One such studies(2)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6343205/ shows significant activity in the frontal, occipital, and temporal areas of the brain. This caused changes in memories, cognition, reasoning, behavior, perception, feelings, consciousness, problem-solving, strategizing, and introspection, among others.

This changed participants’ perceptions and amplified their memories and emotions. It was like they were reliving past experiences in vivid detail.

They could also envision the future like it’s real and currently happening. In addition, their thoughts were more focused and concentrated, resulting in self-referential thinking, internal mental activity, and selective concentration with full attention.

Those brain areas also result in strong visual hallucinations during closed-eye imagery. Participants closing their eyes were still as visually stimulated as seeing an intricate piece of art or natural image.

The study also found that ayahuasca reduced default mode network activity and connectivity, which enriched consciousness.

Another literature review(3)https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303906899 accumulated 28 neuroimaging articles and found that the psychedelic additionally increases positive mood. Ayahuasca also improved working memory, planning, and self-control toward their impulses and usual behavior. That last one can work wonders for depression and addiction.

If you’re interested in other studies, research, and reviews related to the biology and neuroscience of ayahuasca, here’s a long list for curious minds to explore:

  • Advances and challenges in neuroimaging studies on the effects of serotonergic hallucinogens: Contributions of the resting brain(4)https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30471679/
  • Ayahuasca: Pharmacology, neuroscience and therapeutic potential(5)https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0361923016300454
  • Effects of ayahuasca on mental health and quality of life in naïve users: A longitudinal and cross-sectional study combination(6)https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-61169-x
  • Ayahuasca: Uses, Phytochemical and Biological Activities(7)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6646606/
  • The current state of research on ayahuasca: a systematic review of human studies assessing psychiatric symptoms, neuropsychological functioning, and neuroimaging(8)https://www.iceers.org/current-state-research-on-ayahuasca/
  • Effects of the South American psychoactive beverage Ayahuasca on regional brain electrical activity in humans: a functional neuroimaging study using low-resolution electromagnetic tomography (LORETA)(9)https://www.tdx.cat/bitstream/handle/10803/5378/jr5de6.pdf?sequence=5&isAllowed=y
  • The Psychedelic State Induced by Ayahuasca Modulates the Activity and Connectivity of the Default Mode Network(10)https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0118143
  • Acute effects of ayahuasca on neuropsychological performance: differences in executive function between experienced and occasional users(11)https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-013-3167-9
  • Ayahuasca: An ancient sacrament for treatment of contemporary psychiatric illness?(12)https://meridian.allenpress.com/mhc/article/7/1/39/127708/Ayahuasca-An-ancient-sacrament-for-treatment-of
  • Ayahuasca and the Treatment of Drug Addiction(13)https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-642-40426-9_6
  • Ayahuasca, an ancient substance with traditional and contemporary use in neuropsychiatry and neuroscience(14)https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1525505019302513
  • Classical hallucinogens and neuroimaging: A systematic review of human studies: Hallucinogens and neuroimaging(15)https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0149763416302354
  • How does ayahuasca work from a psychiatric perspective? Pros and cons of the entheogenic therapy(16)https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/hup.2728
  • Ayahuasca as a Decoction Applied to Human: Analytical Methods, Pharmacology and Potential Toxic Effects(17)https://www.mdpi.com/2077-0383/11/4/1147/htm
  • New World Tryptamine Hallucinogens and the Neuroscience of Ayahuasca(18)https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28401525/
  • Biological Effects of Ayahuasca in Human Neural Stem Cells and Minibrains(19)https://2017.psychedelicscience.org/conference/plant-medicine/biological-effects-of-ayahuasca-in-human-neural-stem-cells-and-minibrains
  • Neural correlates of the DMT experience assessed with multivariate EEG(20)https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598((-019-51974-4))
  • Behavioral Changes Over Time Following Ayahuasca Exposure in Zebrafish(21)https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00139/full
  • The Therapeutic Potentials of Ayahuasca: Possible Effects against Various Diseases of Civilization(22)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4773875/
  • Ayahuasca: Psychological and Physiologic Effects, Pharmacology and Potential Uses in Addiction and Mental Illness(23)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6343205/
  • Effects of ayahuasca on mental health and quality of life in naïve users: A longitudinal and cross-sectional study combination(24)https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-61169-x
  • N,N-dimethyltryptamine and Amazonian ayahuasca plant medicine(25)https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/hup.2835
  • DMT alters cortical travelling waves(26)https://elifesciences.org/articles/59784
  • Effects of the Natural β-Carboline Alkaloid Harmine, a Main Constituent of Ayahuasca, in Memory and in the Hippocampus: A Systematic Literature Review of Preclinical Studies(27)https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02791072.2016.1260189
  • Ayahuasca, dimethyltryptamine, and psychosis: a systematic review of human studies(28)https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2045125316689030
  • The Creative Cycle Processes Model of Spontaneous Imagery Narratives Applied to the Ayahuasca Shamanic Journey(29)https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1556-3537.2012.01057.x
  • Dark Classics in Chemical Neuroscience: N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT)(30)https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acschemneuro.8b00101
  • Antidepressant Effects of a Single Dose of Ayahuasca in Patients With Recurrent Depression(31)https://journals.lww.com/psychopharmacology/Abstract/2016/02000/Antidepressant_Effects_of_a_Single_Dose_of.13.aspx
  • New World Tryptamine Hallucinogens and the Neuroscience of Ayahuasca(32)https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/7854_2016_472

The Relationship Between Ayahuasca and Mental Health

Ayahuasca is well-documented(33)https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.687615/full when it comes to mental health. It influences a great deal of areas but where it shines most is its ability to subdue depression, anxiety, addiction, and traumas.

Long-term users of the psychedelic brew show positive traits like emotional maturity, self-love, confidence, assertiveness, compassion, and optimism. It generally increases emotional stability and self-positivity while eliminating psychopathology, neuroticism, and negative behaviors.

Ayahuasca enthusiasts also tend to be more psychosocially well-rounded, helping them connect better with themselves and others.

Each session boosts the quality of life and gives the user more emotional clarity.

Mindfulness peaks as a result, and self-judgment reaches an all-time low. These effects come from an unmatched level of introspection and perception. It’s like a thousand sessions of meditation and therapy poured into a cup.

Despite all the positives, people with certain mental disorders are advised to stay far away from ayahuasca. Why?

Because it can worsen existing symptoms, surface non-existing symptoms, and even lead to serious psychological hangups like ayahuasca-induced psychosis(34)https://www.elsevier.es/es-revista-revista-colombiana-psiquiatria-379-articulo-psychosis-induced-by-abuse-ayahuasca-S0034745019300794, persistent psychosis, hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), and permanent brain damage.

These mental health issues include schizophrenia, psychosis, psychotic depression, bipolar disorder, psychotic mania, schizophreniform disorders, and disorders with psychotic or manic traits.

So, if you have active symptoms of any of these disorders, or you have a family history of mental illness, please avoid the psychedelic at all costs.

Frequent users can have psychotic episodes if ayahuasca is not used properly or prepared for, but it’s more likely to be permanent if you have a personal or familial relationship with mental illness.

The dark side of ayahuasca includes mood disorders, respiratory arrest, dizziness, ataxia, disorganized thinking, tremors, seizures, ongoing paranoia, nystagmus, visual disturbances, coma, and even death.

In addition, people who are on SSRIs and other antidepressants should take some time off before drinking the brew. If not, it can result in a condition called serotonin syndrome.

This overdose of serotonin can be fatal at worst. At best, you can experience palpitations, convulsions, hyperthermia, and other terrible effects. This is similarly true for people using psychiatric meds and other medications(35)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6007657/.

And although ayahuasca is not addictive, people can still grow dependent on the brew for feelings of euphoria and an escape from reality.


How Ayahuasca Affects Your Brain Long-Term

The reported benefits of using ayahuasca long-term are enticing, but the risks are equally terrifying. What does this mean for your neurons?

Well, for one, people are using it to reset their brains and pursue a better, more positive way of living.

It can change your personality, but that’s only if you pay attention to the journey and integrate the lessons into your day-to-day life.

In fact, some individuals use it once and never have a reason to retry it. That’s how much better and wiser they’ve become.

From people seeking spiritual and cosmic truths to those searching for relief from emotional distress, childhood traumas, war traumas, substance abuse, sexual abuse, dysfunctional homes, depression, anxiety, fear of dying, existential crisis, identity crisis, or just modern everyday life.

Still, keep in mind that the set and setting—as well as dosing, preparation, intent, and shaman or guide—matter a lot. If care is not taken, ayahuasca can lead to all sorts of problems.

Having a personal or family history of mental illness isn’t something to overlook either. Long-term ayahuasca use can cause irreversible damage to your brain if you fall under this category.

It sucks but you’ll have to stick with tested drugs for now, until psychedelic therapy gets the attention, funding, research, and testing it deserves.


Ayahuasca: The Past, Present, and Future

Ayahuasca started with spiritual voyaging, religious pursuits, and ritualistic practices.

But now, modern science has taken over and is trying to understand everything there is to know about the psychedelic brew, its ingredients (DMT and MAOIs), and both short- and long-term effects.

Ayahuasca sits perfectly well between the scope of spirituality and scientific research, which will propel it into the future.

From shamans and mental health professionals to neuroscientists and plant biologists. From casual drinkers and enthusiastic users to one-time tourists and recurring advocates.

Ayahuasca is here to stay and has a lot to offer different aspects of humanity. All we need is more scientific research and experienced shamans, plus people willing to learn from it and integrate it into their lives.

When it comes to the brain and nervous system, plenty of research has shown its positive impacts on mood, perceptions, thoughts, decisions, emotions, motivations, actions, and so on. And plenty more studies are on the way.


Key Takeaways

Understanding the neuroscience of ayahuasca can help you decide if it’s a psychedelic worth trying or if you should keep attending ayahuasca retreats.

We’ve looked at how it influences the human brain and nervous system.
But we need much more research on how ayahuasca works and affects the neural workings of its users.

Well, as long as you’ve prepared well before attending an ayahuasca ceremony and free of severe mental illness, you have nothing to fear. Scientists will keep on researching the psychedelic and we’ll keep you updated on the latest findings.

References

References
1 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0269881120909409
2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6343205/
3 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303906899
4 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30471679/
5 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0361923016300454
6 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-61169-x
7 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6646606/
8 https://www.iceers.org/current-state-research-on-ayahuasca/
9 https://www.tdx.cat/bitstream/handle/10803/5378/jr5de6.pdf?sequence=5&isAllowed=y
10 https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0118143
11 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-013-3167-9
12 https://meridian.allenpress.com/mhc/article/7/1/39/127708/Ayahuasca-An-ancient-sacrament-for-treatment-of
13 https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-642-40426-9_6
14 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1525505019302513
15 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0149763416302354
16 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/hup.2728
17 https://www.mdpi.com/2077-0383/11/4/1147/htm
18 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28401525/
19 https://2017.psychedelicscience.org/conference/plant-medicine/biological-effects-of-ayahuasca-in-human-neural-stem-cells-and-minibrains
20 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598((
21 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00139/full
22 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4773875/
23 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6343205/
24 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-61169-x
25 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/hup.2835
26 https://elifesciences.org/articles/59784
27 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02791072.2016.1260189
28 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2045125316689030
29 https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1556-3537.2012.01057.x
30 https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acschemneuro.8b00101
31 https://journals.lww.com/psychopharmacology/Abstract/2016/02000/Antidepressant_Effects_of_a_Single_Dose_of.13.aspx
32 https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/7854_2016_472
33 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.687615/full
34 https://www.elsevier.es/es-revista-revista-colombiana-psiquiatria-379-articulo-psychosis-induced-by-abuse-ayahuasca-S0034745019300794
35 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6007657/

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