A team of scientists from the Czech National Institute of Mental Health and their foreign colleagues joined the Huni Kui and Ashaninka tribes from the Brazilian and Peruvian parts of the Amazon forest on a project to study the neurobiological effects of the psychoactive brew Ayahuasca. The expedition was initially funded by the Czech “Neuron Foundation” and is the first of its kind involving indigenous people as partners of scientific research. The whole project is being filmed by a crew directed by Mr. David Čálek, who is in the process of making a documentary with the preliminary title “Doctors on a Trip”.
The main part of the expedition is to be held in early 2020 and aims at collecting data from volunteers who will take part in various Ayahuasca ceremonies. The scientists hope to explore the role of the traditional ceremonial setting and indigenous practices on psychological domains such as mood, well-being and connectedness. In order to study the neurobiological correlates of the effects of Ayahuasca, they will be equipped with multiple mobile EEG systems, devices that record the electric activity of the brain.
The expedition leader, Dr. Tomáš Páleníček, explains the overall objectives: “First of all, the study should answers whether the traditional setting can generate long-term positive effects on mood and well-being. At the same time, we are interested in the neurobiological biomarkers of these changes, for which we are bringing the EEG systems. Secondly, we believe that ritual psychedelic experiences can induce connections between people. Therefore, while we will record EEG during the ceremony, we will also assess brain to brain connectivity across the participants including the shaman. We will use precisely synchronized EEG systems that allow us to explore such effects. Furthermore we believe that experience with Ayahuasca may also alter long-term interpersonal relationships, increase sociability and the ability to link with others or even affect our relationship and connection to nature.”
Even though the work on the project started back in 2016, the major preparatory part of the expedition was performed in May this year. The selected expedition team consisted of scientists from the National Institute of Mental Health, led by Dr. Tomáš Páleníček accompanied by Dr. Filip Tylš , Dr. Martin Brunovský & Dr. Martin Kuchař, their colleagues Dr. Eduardo Ekman Schenberg as the main Brazilian counterpart, Dr. Frank Zanow, Physicist and CEO of ANT Neuro (ant-neuro.com), a manufacturer of mobile EEG equipment, and the Italian anthropologist Dr. Tania Re, founder and board member of UNESCO Chair “Health Anthropology, Biosphere and Healing systems”.
Remaining members of the expedition were the documentary director David Čálek and his crew Václav Flégl and Eva Césarová. All together they successfully visited the native people of the Amazon in Brazil and Peru to map the local conditions, establish relationships, introduce local people to the goals of the research and the technology to be used, and test technological aspects of the equipment under rainforest conditions.
The team’s first steps led to Santa Rosa do Purus, a small town in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in the state of Acre. In Santa Rosa, about 80% of inhabitants are indigenous people of the Huni Kui tribe. The local leader “cacique” Naxima hosted the whole group, described the lifestyle and traditions of the Huni Kui people and organized an exploratory hike through the nearby jungle with “rapé” initiation. Rapé is a famous traditional medicine made of tobacco and other plants. It is a powder that is blown into other person’s nostril via a wooden pipe called a “tepi” and is recognized as having cleansing and stimulatory effects. Finally, he introduced the research team to a local community further up the Purus River in their “Aldeia” (village). As a part of the stay and also in honor of the research team being present, Naxima organized two ceremonies with Nixi Pae (Huni Kui name for Ayahuasca) that involved his family and a respected old “pajé” (shaman). All of this was performed in such a natural way; it was simply a very warm, familiar and open-minded setting. As the enthusiasm of the scientists simply cannot be erased, as well as the hunger for any valuable or pilot data, everybody agreed to fill in psychometric scales describing the subjective nature of their experiences. Extreme environmental conditions, especially heat and humidity, were a challenge for the team as well as for the equipment. Notably, while first attempting to record the EEG during the Nixi Pae ceremony, the EEG amplifier stopped working due to overheating. Unfortunately, the device was damaged so severely that it could not be reused for further measurements. Luckily, Frank in his caution brought two mobile EEG systems as back up, so we could perform more recordings. As mentioned above, all of the members of the expedition were introduced to rapé. Since they found its effects very interesting, they also decided to record the EEG of some of the participants during and after the ritual administration of this medicine. All of the local people were very interested in what the scientists were doing, but they could not become subjects of any investigation before the scientists obtained final approval from the Federal Government in Brazil. For that they counted on the partnership and support of the official Huni Kui federation “FEPHAC” (Federação do Povo Huni Kui do Estado do Acre) and its president, Ninawa Inu Huni Kui.
After an amazing week in Santa Rosa the whole team moved to Peru. Via Puerto Maldonado and Lima the final destination was the Mayantuaycu retreat center located in the jungle nearby the city of Pucallpa. The center is located in a beautiful spot on the bank of the Shanay-timpishka River, a river in which the water is almost boiling with temperatures around 90°C. This has also led to its alternative names “Aguas calientes” or “Aguas hirbiendas”. The center was founded and is led by maestro (shaman) Juan Flores, of the Ashaninka tribe. Famous anthropologist and Ayahuasca researcher, Jeremy Narby, helped to develop this magical place. Maestro Juan was also very open-minded, shared some knowledge about the plants they use to treat various disorders and let us present him with our intention, including a practical demonstration of the EEG equipment. On the second night, an Ayahuasca ceremony took place in there, where the EEG equipment was successfully tested and the principal investigator’s EEG was recorded throughout the whole session. As a result, maestro Juan also agreed to collaborate and join the research.
Tomáš Páleníček summarized the preparative phase of the expedition: “We have established important and warm relationships, they want to support us and to collaborate on the research. I believe this is the first time ever western neuroscientists have gained such a level of cooperation. Furthermore, we have also succeeded to test the equipment, which at the current stage can have several limitations when used in such an extreme environment.”
About two weeks later, after the team returned from their journey to the Amazon, on May 22 and 23, Eduardo Schenberg presented the project and preliminary results at the fourth official large assembly of the whole Huni Kui tribe, organized by FEPHAC in the city of Rio Branco. It was the largest assembly ever organized, with around 300 representatives from all 104 aldeias of the Huni Kui. There were several political topics discussed; however, most importantly here, the study including the documentary movie was presented and unanimously approved. This was a major historical breakthrough and an honor at the same time, since, for the first time ever in Brazilian history, the whole indigenous tribe gave a green light to a scientific collaboration.
Although these initial steps of the expedition were successful, the team still has a long journey ahead of them. First, there are technical issues to be solved for simultaneous recording and questions regarding big data analysis. Second, despite the fact that the study was ethically approved by the Czech ethics board, it still needs the approval from Brazilian and Peruvian local authorities. Finally, although these initial steps were funded by the Czech philanthropist Václav Dejčmar via the “Neuron Foundation”, this encouraging work requires additional funding. For that purpose the project was selected as one of the pilot studies to be supported by fundraising campaign of the Czech “Foundation for Psychedelic research” , PSYRES foundation at psyresfoundation.eu.
For more information, please contact Eva Césarová at: firstname.lastname@example.org.