Scientists discover what ayahuasca does to the brain

British study reveals that ayahuasca compound induces the brain to a state of hyperconnectivity. Region responsible for imagination is one of the most affected

Originally from the Amazon, ayahuasca is a type of hallucinogenic tea used for medicinal or religious purposes, but its worldwide fame has intrigued science for years. Behold, a team of British scientists decided to investigate the action of the compound in the human brain, through one of its best known psychoactives, dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The psychedelic results are amazing, as brain connections are temporarily altered.

Photo: Ermal Tahiri/Pixabay/Canaltech

Published in scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study reveals that the active principle induces an increase in the state of connectivity throughout the brain (hyperconnectivity), through neurons, involving even normally distant areas. The most visible and atypical changes are concentrated in areas linked to “higher level” functions, such as imagination.

Understand how the study measuring the impacts of ayahuasca was carried out

British study investigates the effects of ayahuasca compound on the brain (Image: FLY:D/Unsplash)

British study investigates the effects of ayahuasca compound on the brain (Image: FLY:D/Unsplash)

Photo: Canaltech

In the study, researchers at Imperial College London recruited 20 healthy volunteers who lived in the UK. These participants received an injection containing 20 mg of DMT given intravenously. According to the authors, this is a high concentration of the psychedelic.

During the entire process — including before and after the application of the active principle of ayahuasca — detailed images of the volunteers’ brains were captured, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) techniques.

In total, the psychedelic “trip” lasted about 20 minutes. However, the participants did not fully experience the immersion, as, at regular intervals, the volunteers had to rate the subjective intensity of the compound’s effect on their minds. The scale went from 1 to 10.

What changes in the brain with ayahuasca?

“Our results revealed that when a volunteer received DMT, there was a marked dysregulation of some of the brain rhythms that would normally be dominant,” explains Robin Carhart-Harris, a professor at Imperial College London, in a statement.

To summarize the results in a state of mind, the professor explains that “the brain has changed its mode of functioning to something totally anarchic”. It is as if, temporarily, specific areas, especially those related to the imagination, worked in a very unusual way.

“It is intriguing to speculate whether the magnitude of these brain changes is related to increased plasticity (ie, the property of being easily shaped or molded) in both a neuronal and behavioral sense,” the authors question. However, these developments still need to be investigated in future studies.

Here, it should be noted that, throughout the experiment, the volunteers were accompanied by a team of professionals who could help them with possible reactions. The use of psychedelics and hallucinogenic substances is not recommended due to their adverse effects and health risks.

Source: PNAS and Imperial College London

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