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How Does Ayahuasca Impact the Brain?

For millennia, communities around the world have incorporated the consumption of psychedelic substances into their cultural, religious, and healing practices. In these communities, psychedelics have held a revered and nearly sacred place in the realms of spirituality, individual and group wellness.

Heroic Hearts Project, along with thousands of Americans, have seen how psychedelics can dramatically impact the life of someone for whom other medical, psychological, or pharmaceutical treatments have been ineffective.

We take the science behind psychedelics seriously, and one question that researchers are continually exploring is “How does ayahuasca impact the brain.”

Ayahuasca’s impact on PTSD

“This puts you right back in touch with who you are as a human being.”

-Matt Kahl, in From Shock to Awe

Our organization does what we do because we’ve seen and experienced first-hand how ayahuasca and other psychedelics can positively impact mental wellbeing.

Veterans suffering with PTSD face a wide variety of life-altering symptoms. Some of these symptoms include, but are not limited to, intrusive thoughts and memories, the inability to think or react logically, hyper-vigilance, detachment, and suicidal ideation. These and other negative mental and physical symptoms can make day-to-day living nearly unbearable.

There are many treatment options for people dealing with PTSD, and some veterans are able to find relief and recovery. But for others, relief and recovery seem unattainable.

This is where psychedelics have the potential to be effective. Some individuals who participate in ayahuasca ceremonies find them to be profound and life-changing.

“These experiences have a way of completely blasting people out of the mental ruts they’re stuck in and to look at a broader set of possibilities,”

– Dr. Johnson at Johns Hopkins, New York Times, August 30, 2020

While the personal accounts of life-changing realizations are valuable on their own, we’re strongly motivated by the research behind how ayahuasca affects the brain.

Recent research on what ayahuasca does to the brain

For the past five years, scientists have been conducting research studies to identify how the brain is impacted by ayahuasca.

A 2015 study conducted in Brazil and published in Nature showed preliminary evidence that even one mild dose of ayahuasca can improve symptoms of depression. Similarly, a 2018 double-blind placebo-controlled trial showed significant antidepressant effects of ayahuasca on people with treatment-resistant depression.

Early research shows clear benefits for depression, but what is the actual mechanism behind the positive impact of ayahuasca on the brain for people with PTSD?

Australian scientist Antonio Inserra hypothesizes the following:

Ayahuasca alkaloids enhance synaptic plasticity, increase neurogenesis and boost dopaminergic neurotransmission, and those processes are involved in memory reconsolidation and fear extinction, the fear response triggered by the memory can be reprogramed and/or extinguished. Subsequently, the memory is stored with this updated significance.

Frontiers of Pharmacology

Recently, researchers at Complutense University of Madrid concluded a four-year study that showed that ayahuasca contributed to increased brain plasticity and the development of new neurons.

In short, this means that ayahuasca has the potential to help develop new neurons in the brain and reframe memories: memories that may have been traumatic or fearful can be neutralized.

Even more, ayahuasca may have the ability to increase transmission of dopamine. Dopamine in the brain is believed to be responsible for the brain’s processing of whether an action is desirable or aversive. These benefit have significant implications not just for PTSD, but for other neurogenerative diseases.

What does the future hold for ayahuasca research?

Each study that is published gives us a clearer picture of how ayahuasca affects the brain, and we’re excited to see more research about the long-term impacts. There are currently 336 studies that include ayahuasca in the PubMed database, with fifty published in 2020 alone.

The results of these studies seem promising, and more neuroscientists are looking to explore the actual mechanisms behind ayahuasca’s impact on the brain.

For now, we know that the chemicals in ayahuasca encourage neurological plasticity, the brain’s ability to change through growth and reorganization. It may also help us relate differently to our traumatic memories, which could enable a type of healing unique to ayahuasca and similar psychedelics.