If there’s already an astrologer, life coach, therapist and trainer in your fleet of personal health maintenance purveyors, maybe it’s time to add Amazonian shaman to that wellness arsenal; because a new study suggests that certain compounds found in the psychedelic brew ayahuasca actually stimulate the growth of new brain cells in vitro. Let that steep for a minute.
What is Ayahuasca Exactly?
For those unaware, ayahuasca—which is sacrament in some South American religions and spiritual recreation for many elsewhere—is the Quechua name for a tea obtained from the vine Banisteriopsis caapi, and used for ritual purposes by the indigenous populations of the Amazon.
Also known as yage, the ayahuasca tea is a blend of two plants—the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a shrub called chacruna (Psychotria viridis), which contains the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and which also makes the tea illegal in the U.S.
Can Ayahuasca Maintain the Brain?
As we get older, the rate at which our neurons grow (a process called neurogenesis) doesn’t cut it to replace the ones we’ve lost, leading to age-related diseases such as dementia. But what if certain elements found in this Amazonian superbrew could actually help our neurons to catch up?
Harmol, Harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine are the dominant alkaloids found in ayahuasca, so researchers at the Beckley/Sant Pau Research Programme placed them both in a petri dish along with hippocampal stem cells, which they found caused the rate of these cells’ development into mature neurons to increase.
These initial findings were debuted at the Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelics Research in 2016, and were the first concrete substantiation that some of ayahuasca’s core components have neurogenic properties. The data gleaned from the study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports, are just the tip of the iceberg on a topic that could very well go from trend to treatment.
A Closer Look Inside the Research
To really assess the potential weight of their breakthrough, the Beckley/Sant Pau Research Programme researchers conducted even more experiments, including analysis on neurospheres (clusters of neural stem cells) obtained from the brains of adult mice. After seven days of treatment in vitro under proliferative conditions with the four β-carbolines found in ayahuasca—harmol, harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine—they discovered that these compounds promoted a loss of “stemness” or undifferentiated state of the neurospheres. In simpler terms: combined with some of ayahuasca’s building blocks, the mice’s neurospheres actually developed into adult neurons.
In another study conducted in 2016, a different team of researchers analyzed the effects of harmine—the β-carboline alkaloid with the highest concentration in Ayahuasca—in cell cultures containing human neural progenitor cells (hNPCs, 97% nestin-positive) derived from pluripotent stem cells. After four days of treatment, the pool of proliferating hNPCs increased by 71.5%.
The monumental data gleaned from these landmark studies now poise the mental health care community for a new era of possibilities with regard to treating neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders, and redressing brain damage associated with stroke or trauma.
So, buckle your seatbelts, folks. Because when it comes to maintenance of the brain and avoidance of age-related mental diseases, ayahuasca might just be the new kale.
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