For hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years, Amazonian shamans have protected the health of their communities using a sacred hallucinogenic brew, said to be capable of healing all manner of physical and psychological ailments. Known as ayahuasca, this traditional medicine contains a potent psychoactive compound called DMT, which has been shown in several studies to ease symptoms of depression and other mental disorders. Though scientists are yet to uncover most of the secrets behind the healing power of this plant-based medicine, researchers from the Beckley/Sant Pau Research Programme – in collaboration with the Spanish Medical Research Council – have now revealed that certain compounds in ayahuasca can actually stimulate the birth of new neurons.
Given that many cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease are associated with neuron death in key regions of the brain, the team behind this stunning discovery believe that ayahuasca’s potential to bring about neurogenesis could one day lead to new treatments for many such ailments.
For instance, those who suffer from Alzheimer’s often experience a significant reduction in the volume of their hippocampus – a part of the brain that is responsible for learning and memory. However, a team of researchers led by Jordi Riba were able to successfully stimulate the development of hippocampal stem cells into both young and mature neurons by mixing them in a petri dish with two compounds found in ayahuasca: harmine and tetrahydroharmine.
Reacting to this groundbreaking discovery, Beckley Foundation founder and director Amanda Feilding told IFLScience that “we were pretty amazed at the results – the fact that we were able to generate new brain cells and then mature brain cells from harmine and tertrahydroharmine. They seem to be remarkably prolific.”
Though a full study outlining this research is yet to be published, the team have released a series of images that illustrate just how successful their experiments have been, as can be seen below.
The first image shows the stem cells – stained blue – before the addition of either harmine or tetrahydroharmine. No neurons are present at this stage. Jordi Riba – Beckley/Sant Pau Research Programme
As exciting as this finding may be, however, Feilding insists that “it’s early days. We’ve only done it in a dish, we haven’t done it in vivo yet. But if it is as good as it looks, it could be an indication for a new treatment [for cognitive disorders] down the line.”
The second image reveals the presence of young neurons (stained green) and mature neurons (stained red) after the addition of harmine to hippocampal stem cells. Jordi Riba – Beckley/Sant Pau Research Programme