“Neurobiology of the Effect of Ayahuasca Used in a Traditional Ritual Environment: Behavioural and EEG Studies”

a focus on brain activity, synchronization in the brain and long-term effects on mood and well-being, harmony with nature and interpersonal connection

An international collaborative project performed by Dr. Tomáš Páleníček, PhD., and his team from the National Institute of Mental Health, Czech Republic, and Eduard Ekman Schenberg, PhD. Instituto Plantando Consciência, Brazil, with Huni Kui Indians from the Amazon Rainforest, and technological support from ANT-Neuro from Germany. The expedition aims to examine the role of the traditional context of a ritual using Ayahuasca in the Amazon in terms of the acute effects on the human brain and long-term effects on mood, experience, relationship to nature and interpersonal connections. At the same time, a popular science documentary will be filmed during the expedition. The project received support in the Czech Republic as a “Neuron Expedition” from the foundation of the same name (https://www.nfneuron.com/en).

AYAHUASCA

Ayahuasca is a traditional hallucinogenic brew that has been used for millennia by native people from the Amazon for healing and spiritual rituals. In the language of the Huni Kui, Ayahuasca is called Nixi Pae. Ayahuasca is prepared from a variety of plants, but the main ingredients are the liana Banisteriopsis caapi and the shrub Psychotria viridis, otherwise called chacruna. While hallucinogenic substances (especially dimethyltryptamine, DMT) are contained in P. viridis, B. Caapi contains their activators and vomiting agents. DMT belongs to the so-called serotonin psychedelics, quite comparable for example to psilocybin contained in hallucinogenic mushrooms and also occurs naturally in low concentrations in the human brain. Recently, under clinical conditions, the therapeutic effects of Ayahuasca have been demonstrated on depressive patients resistant to established treatment procedures. To-date, however, no scientific information has been reported on the acute and long-term effects of Ayahuasca given in the traditional context.

DESCRIPTION AND OBJECTIVES OF THE STUDY

The planned study will focus on the neuropsychological and neurobiological effects of Ayahuasca, evaluated by using psychometric scales and an electroencephalogram (EEG). The volunteers in the study will interact directly with the participants in the ceremony, who had come to the Amazon for the purpose of participating in traditional rituals. During the ceremony, different types of Ayahuasca will be used, some of which are more psychoactive than others, some contain P. viridis and others do not. Due to knowledge of the composition of the type of Ayahuasca used, we will be able to study the psychoactive effects similarly to a placebo-controlled study. The effects of the Ayahuasca containing P. viridis compared to the beverage without this plant, i.e. a hallucinogenic version of the drink, will be compared. The research will also have the completely original task of measuring the direct interaction between the subjects and the shaman through the so-called inter-brain-sync.

The main objectives are 1) to evaluate the acute effects of Ayahuasca on brain activity and the connection of the participants in the ceremony and the shaman using EEG and 2) to assess the long-term effect on mood, experience, inner satisfaction, connection with nature and relationships between people.

We expect that the Ayahuasca containing P. viridis will provide more significant changes in brain activity, entropy and connectivity, and will have more noticeable positive effects on well-being, mood, harmony with nature, and connectivity. We also assume that during the ceremony, the connection between the participants and the shaman will increase (inter-brain-synchrony will increase) and this increase will be more profound when the psychoactive form of the brew is ingested. The study will also focus on the importance of the traditional context in relation to the intensity and effects of Ayahuasca. These new findings could be a key to understanding how these traditional “medicines” can be put into practice in the treatment of mental health disorders.

THE CONTEXT IS IMPORTANT

To a large extent the effects of psychedelics are dependent on two variables: on the mind of the individual and on the environment in which the substance is used. It is well known that insufficient emphasis on set and setting can lead to unpleasant experiences with long-term negative consequences such as anxiety (Dominguez-Clave et al., 2016). On the other hand, a safe, controlled setting, management of the psychedelic experience in the traditional ritual context usually shows long-term positive effects. This claim is supported by a recent study in which depressed patients were given psilocybin, and it was determined that the lower the anxiety during the experience, the better the antidepressant effect (Carhart-Harris et al., 2016). Altered states of consciousness induced by psychedelics can lead to a change in a person’s view on life, reality and personal problems, and may even cause long-term changes in personality traits (MacLean et al., 2011). Many traditional sacred rituals using various forms of altered states of consciousness have been preserved until today, especially in Central and South America (Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, etc.). Many experts agree that in addition to the pharmacological effects of these substances, the access of shamans, the singing of ritual medical (prayer) songs called icaros and, of course, the aforementioned setting also play a significant role. These factors have led us to study the effects of Ayahuasca used in the traditional environment. Our aim is also to obtain data on the possible therapeutic uses of Ayahuasca in the treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders.

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