Ayahuasca, an old psychedelic drink, may work against depression: research



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CTVNews.ca, with archives by medical specialist CTV Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip

Published Sunday, March 31, 2019 10:00 PM EDT

Last Update Sunday, March 31, 2019 23:38 EDT

A psychedelic drink used in spiritual ceremonies since ancient times is now under the microscope as a possible answer for people with severe, treatment-resistant depression.

Ayahuasca, a blend of vines and leaves growing in the Amazon, has been used by indigenous groups in religious ceremonies for centuries. More recently, ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru, Colombia, Brazil and other countries have become tourist attractions.

Recent research has shown that ayahuasca can help relieve severe depression quickly when given in a controlled environment.

A study published in Psychological Medicine found "significant anti-depressant effects of ayahuasca" in 29 patients with treatment-resistant depression. Brazilian researchers came to the conclusion after a randomized study in which patients received ayahuasca or a placebo in a hospital setting.

"Most of our patients reported that they were feeling much more relieved and quiet as a whole," said Draulio Araujo, one of the study's authors and a professor at the Brain Institute at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte.

"We need to do a lot more research – it's the real effects, and where the effects come from, and the best way to use that," he told CTV News.

Brian Rush, an emeritus scientist at the Mental Health Policy Research Institute at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, is so intrigued by ayahuasca as part of research efforts being made in Peru to assess the potential therapeutic use of the beverage.

"There is something going on that brings benefits to mental health, depression, anxiety, trauma and, in particular, addiction," he said. "The leading neuroscientists in the world are interested in this now."

In traditional environments, ayahuasca is administered by a shaman. Drinking can trigger vivid hallucinations along with nausea and vomiting.

There are rare reports of adverse reactions and five deaths among tourists linked to the possible use of ayahuasca.

In his travel notices online, the Canadian government warns that ayahuasca ceremonies held in Peru and elsewhere "involve the use of substances that can cause medical complications and can seriously impair cognitive and physical abilities."

"Ayahuasca ceremonies are not regulated and there is no way to assess the safety of any of the services, operators or shamans," said one of these consultants.

But supporters say that ayahuasca can also bring about profound changes in awareness and spiritual enlightenment.

For Allan Finney, who suffered from anxiety, depression and alcohol dependence after growing up in an alcoholic household, ayahuasca is "the reset button or the resetting of your thinking patterns."

"It changes your life. It's a change in the game," he told CTV News. "It helps you deal with negative thought patterns, negative behavioral characteristics that continue to plague you throughout your life."

Finney, who lives in Charlottetown, P.E.I., tried ayahuasca for the first time in Peru and "immediately saw positive changes." He said that made him less angry and more relaxed.

"My life is much better now … I can not even begin to tell you."

However, ayahuasca is illegal in Canada because it contains banned dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmaline. Health Canada granted exemptions to only two religious communities in the Montreal area, which can now import ayahuasca for ceremonial purposes.

Scientists admit they do not know exactly how ayahuasca affects the brains of people suffering from depression and addiction, but are trying to find out faithfully. Brain images have shown that the potion changes blood flow and electrical activity in individuals tested. Some patients have described this as a kind of "car wash for the brain."

"Many patients we had on our test came out saying they felt like they were in psychotherapy for a year … while under the influence of ayahuasca for a few hours, so they felt that experience as a deep psychotherapy session," Araujo said.

Rush, the Canadian scientist, is part of a group that accompanies people severely dependent on drugs or alcohol who have also failed in all other treatments. His project has studied the effectiveness of ayahuasca in treating addictions in Latin America.

The study subjects should participate in a nine-month program in Peru, which involves counseling and therapy. Ayahuasca is administered for two to three months on the program, along with guidance to interpret the insights that often come with experience.

"We have some people in the study who have gone from one year to 18 months of follow-up. The stories are consistent – they are doing very well," said Rush.

He and his colleagues had to resort to crowdfunding to take the study to South America.

"We're still out of big donations, people are volunteering to do transcripts," he said. "It tells you that people know something is happening and they want to bring it out."

Rush hopes to help persuade Canadian regulators to allow ayahuasca to be tested in Canada.

"People who are interested in it are respectable, qualified, working in key institutions. Maybe we should take a chance," said Rush, who hopes to plan a scientific meeting on psychedelic drugs in the fall.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression and about one-third of them do not respond to standard antidepressants.

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