First Big Ayahuasca Study Shows Promising Early Results

This is the largest and most authoritative scientific study on ayahuasca to date. Apollo/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Ayahuasca is a potent psychedelic that’s recently come into vogue among hipsters backpacking around South America. Indigenous Amazonian communities have been using this drug as a spiritual, psychological, and physical aid for centuries, but it’s recently gained a cult following whose advocates believe it holds the power to treating anxiety, PTSD, addiction, and depression.

The Nature journal Scientific Reports has just published a new piece of research on ayahuasca, making it the largest and most authoritative scientific study on the matter to date. The findings suggest this Amazonian “Shaman's Brew” might be linked to improved everyday well-being, and potentially offer a treatment for alcoholism and depression.

For the uninitiated, ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew made by boiling the leaves of the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriospsis caapi) with a plant called chacruna (Psychotria viridis). Chacruna contains a potent psychedelic compound called N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, better known as DMT. Oddly enough, this strong psychedelic compound can be naturally found in many animals and plants.

Researchers from University College London (UCL) and the University of Exeter in the UK sifted through the Global Drug Survey data of over 96,000 people worldwide and found 527 ayahuasca users. This group reported higher general well-being, along with less problematic alcohol and drug use, over the previous 12 months than other respondents in the survey.

"These findings lend some support to the notion that ayahuasca could be an important and powerful tool in treating depression and alcohol use disorders," lead author Dr Will Lawn, from UCL, said in a statement.

"Recent research has demonstrated ayahuasca's potential as a psychiatric medicine, and our current study provides further evidence that it may be a safe and promising treatment.”

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Ayahuasca is a blend of the Psychotria Viridis bush and the stems of the Banisteriopsis Caapi vine. Rafael Guimarães dos Santos

However, as the researchers themselves note, it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves with these findings. While they provide some interesting results, sturdier studies are still required before we jump to any grand conclusions.

"It is important to note that these data are purely observational and do not demonstrate causality,” said Lawn.

"Randomised controlled trials must be carried out to fully examine ayahuasca's ability to help treat mood and addiction disorders.”

Senior author Professor Celia Morgan added: "If ayahuasca is to represent an important treatment, it is critical that its short and long-term effects are investigated, and safety established."

Still, this is certainly food for thought. Ayahuasca has long held the reputation of being a dangerous narcotic not fit for scientific study. However, more and more evidence is suggesting that at the very least, this mysterious drug deserves a more thorough and wide investigation.

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