An international academic is coming to New Zealand extolling the use of a potent hallucinogen in treating depression.
For centuries, shamans in remote corners of the Amazon have been making ayahuasca, an entheogenic brew made of two plants and containing the psychedelic DMT (Dimethyltryptamine).
It has long been used as traditional spiritual medicine, but now researchers are looking at its role in modern medicine – specifically, in treating depression.
Dr Nicole Galvão-Coelho, from the University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil, is visiting the University of Auckland next week to give a talk on such research, and the use of psychedelics in treating mental distress.
Interest in ayahuasca in Western countries has picked up in recent years, sending tourists flocking to south America to take place in ayahuasca ceremonies.
When combined, the two plants – Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis – affect the central nervous system, leading to an altered state of consciousness that can include hallucinations, out-of-body experiences and euphoria.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade warns against ayahuasca tourism. While not illegal it is not regulated, and people have reported psychological damage, assault, theft and rape under the influence of the tea.
Galvão-Coelho was part of a team which tested the impacts of ayahuasca on depression in a randomised, double-blind, controlled trial. The findings were published in the Frontiers in Psychiatry journal last year.
Patients with treatment-resistant depression and healthy control subjects were given either ayahuasca tea or placebo, and had their cortisol levels tested 48-hours later.
Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone. It helps fuel your body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Too much or too little of it can be harmful.
The findings suggested “significant” and “rapid” reduction in depressive symptoms after a single ayahuasca session, when compared to placebo, Galvão-Coelho told Stuff.
Salivary cortisol levels increased in patients given ayahuasca, putting them on par with the healthy controls.
Researchers also found a link between this effect and improvements of ‘biomarkers’ of depression, increasing a protein in the brain which induces neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change).
An earlier study, done in marmosets, found primates given ayahuasca responded better than those given traditional pharmaceutical antidepressants.
The idea of using psychedelics to treat mental illness is not new.
Associate Professor Sarah Hetrick, from the University of Auckland’s Department of Psychological Medicine, said there was increasing awareness and interest in moving away from classic interventions to treat depression.
Hetrick said there was “always room for innovation”, and as such, Galvão-Coelho’s talk was drawing widespread interest.
Psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald said research around psychedelics was “pretty exciting” and it was “encouraging” New Zealand was starting to open up to such ideas.
The ‘war on drugs’ and a “hangover of 1960s counter-culture” saw hallucinogens clamped down on for decades, limiting this sort of research until recently, MacDonald said.
While they could be psychologically “quite hard”, psychedelics were “incredibly safe” medically and the chance of harm or adverse reaction was low, he said.
MacDonald said the theories as to why these drugs worked in mental illness largely centre around the kind of “alternative consciousness” some reach.
People reported their perspective – and psychological distress – shifting, which “can be really therapeutic”.
Sunday Star Times