Visions of a psychedelic future

This post is part of a Nature Blog Focus on hallucinogenic drugs in medicine and mental health, inspired by a recent Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper ‘The neurobiology of psychedelic drugs: implications for the treatment of mood disorders’ by Franz Vollenweider and Michael Kometer.

This article will be available, open-access, until September 23. For more information on this Blog Focus please visit the Table of Contents.
 


In a hut, in a forest, in the mountains of Colombia, I am puking into a bucket. I close my eyes and every time my body convulses I see ripples in a lattice of multi-coloured hexagons that flows out to the edges of the universe.

Two hours earlier, I had swallowed a muddy brown brew known as yagé, famous for its hallucinogenic effects, its foul taste, and the accompanying waves of nausea that eventually lead to uncontrollable vomiting.

Yagé has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years – not as a recreational drug – but as a psychological and spiritual aid that holds a central place in indigenous religion.

Romualdo, a displaced Witoto shaman who led the ceremony, was convinced of its mental health benefits and had confidentially assured me that, after the puking, I would remain in a state of heightened conciencia where I could “ask questions, solve difficulties and communicate with spirits.” “Come with a question,” he told me, “you’ll feel better afterwards.”

The main active ingredient in yagé, known outside Colombia as ayahuasca, is dimethyltryptamine or DMT, a hallucinogenic drug from the tryptamine family that works – like LSD and psilocybin – largely through its effect on serotonin receptors.

Psychedelic drugs, mental health and brain science have traditionally made for a heated combination, but a recent scientific article, published in September’s Nature Reviews Neuroscience, has attempted to more coolly assess the growing research on the potential of hallucinogens to treat depression and anxiety.

Lab studies and medical trials form a small but robust body of knowledge that reveal reliable benefits and promising future avenues. The dissociative anaesthetic ketamine has been found to lift mood – even in cases of severe of depression – while psilocybin, present across the world in mushrooms and fungi, has been shown to have anxiety reducing properties.

But while no serious bad reactions have happened during the trials, the full range of potential risks is still not fully understood, meaning the treatments remain firmly in the lab.

The caution is warranted. Psychiatrists are more than aware of hospital admissions triggered by the same drugs taken outside of controlled conditions, and so the compounds will remain as experimental treatments until the risks are fully known.

Nevertheless, the science is now developed enough for new ideas to be generated based solely on a neurobiological understanding of the drugs.

The authors of this latest review, neuroscientists Franz Vollenweider and Michael Kometer, note that success with psychedelics that largely work on the glutamate system – such as ketamine and PCP – may be due to the fact that these circuits regulate long-term brain changes. This suggests a potential path to extending the mood lifting effects of these drugs beyond the initial ‘trip’.

One key advance would be an understanding of how the chemical structure of a particular hallucinogen relates to the experience it creates, allowing researchers a neurological toolkit that could be used to trigger the beneficial effects while toning down the extreme unreality that some people find unpleasant.

Yet, it is still not clear whether such benefits are separable from the psychedelic effects and it may be that the ‘active ingredient’ lies somewhere between an altered state of consciousness and a reflective mind, as some studies on drug-assisted psychotherapy suggest.

It is also clear that a great number of ritual hallucinogens, widely used by indigenous people for their psychological benefits, have yet to be explored.

The preliminary studies on users of yagé indicate that it has potential benefits for mental health, although it remains largely untouched by more rigorous tests.

As my own investigation ends, I leave the isolated hut feeling exhausted and disoriented as the clear morning light refracts through my thoughts and casts bright trickling colours into unfilled spaces.

As Romualdo promised, I feel better, elated even, but the questions I brought remain unanswered and have similarly refracted into a thousand intricate doubts.
 

Link to Nature Blog Focus on psychedelics Table of Contents.
Link to Nature Reviews Neuroscience article.

19 Comments

  1. Posted August 31, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating! Learn more about the medical use of ayahuasca on Tarcher Talks, our online video series, with Adam Elenbaas, author of FISHERS OF MEN: The Gospel of An Ayahuasca Vision Quest.

    http://www.tarcherbooks.net/?p=3068

    • Posted September 1, 2010 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      When did DMT become orally active?

      If emesis is not controllable by Compazine, the safe and effective alternative – especially for cancer chemotherapy vomiting – is smoking marijuana.

      • Kyle
        Posted September 2, 2010 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

        The DMT is made orally active by beta-carbolines (MAOIs) in the ayahuasca vine (B. caapi). Interestingly enough, a lot of ayahuasca mixtures are made without any DMT (usually from P. viridis), just the ayahuasca vine itself, with the same effects. Different species are said to have different characters.

        Ayahuasca isn’t really renowned for medical use in the same way that smoked cannabis is, ie not for nausea and pain in chemo patients.

  2. William Humbert
    Posted September 1, 2010 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Interesting comment from the currandero with regards question answering potential of yage or ayahuasca.

    I found that it did indeed answer some very key questions in my life, resolve long held ambivalences and give me unsolicited but nonetheless very valuable advice.

    But…(i) You need to take it more than once and build a relationship with the plant.

    (ii) It helps to be very clear and focused – i.e. meditation I found helped a great deal.

    (iv) You need to really focus on your question intently prior to ingesting.

    Its one of those things that perseverance pays dividends. A trip or two is not generally enough. My first ceremony I was wondering what all the fuss was about, very psychedelic and visual but no real learning or healing… that came later in the 2 – 6th ceremonies.

  3. Richard Horner
    Posted September 1, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    My son has schizophrenia and his “positive” symptoms remind me of the worst part of my own experiences with psychedelic drugs when younger. Glutamate and dopamine receptors are cross-firing somehow. I saw info on psychedelics used to treat alcoholism and mood disorders. Has anybody ever heard of their use for schizophrenia? Maybe overactivation of those “cross-firing” receptors would exhaust them and allow them to return to a quieter state without the full body slam which the anti-psychotics hit the patient with. Any references or thoughts?

  4. Posted September 1, 2010 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    A thorough anthropological study of ayahuasca shamanism, sorcery, and plant healing is my Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon, published by the University of New Mexico Press. You can take a look at its website at http://www.singingtotheplants.com/. It is newly available in paperback at http://www.amazon.com/dp/0826347304/. Reviews are forthcoming in Cultural Anthropology and Medical Anthropology Quarterly.

  5. Rodrigo
    Posted September 2, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    When will people stop using the word “hallucinogens” ? It is too badly connotated and not even correct, regarding the nature of said “hallucinations”.

  6. Roga
    Posted September 2, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    “…but the questions I brought remain unanswered and have similarly refracted into a thousand intricate doubts.”

    “At first, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers.
    Then, I saw mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers. Finally, I see mountains again as mountains, and rivers again as rivers.”

    you’re here–> Then, I saw mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers.

    Camel–>Lion–>Child

    now go forth and become a child

    • Rodrigo
      Posted September 2, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      And what tells you that “mountains are not mountains” and “rivers were not rivers” are false propositions ?

      • Roga
        Posted September 2, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        have you ever tried skiing down a proposition? or how about fishing in a proposition? If you caught a proposition while fishing in the river how would it taste?

  7. Roga
    Posted September 2, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    also…
    “The ten thousand questions are one question. If you cut through the one question, then the ten thousand questions disappear.”

    the quote above as well as the one in my previous post were sourced from http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Zen_proverbs

    • flinge
      Posted September 28, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      have you ever tried skiing down a question? or how about fishing in a question? If you caught a question while fishing in the river how would it taste?

  8. evilrobotxoxo
    Posted September 3, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    My understanding is that DMT is not a 5HT2A agonist like LSD, mescaline, or psilocybin:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19213917

    • serotonin34
      Posted February 12, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

      DMT is a potent 5-HT2A agonist, just like LSD and psilocybin. DMT also activates sigma-1 sites, but it has much higher affinity for 5-HT2A receptors than for sigma-1 sites, raising the possibility that sigma-1 interactions play absolutely no role in mediating the hallucinogenic effects of exogenous DMT.

  9. Psyephariss
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    When you see the truth, you might not understand, you might reject it. Currently, the Masters see this as a threat to business as usual. Why do you see just a blue sky? Do you not see the purple? Can you not see the wind? Drop your flouride intake for a week, take some iodine suppliments to reverse the damage, I guarantee you’ll see some serious shit!

  10. Posted January 27, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo is a big, beautiful book, filled with gorgeous reproductions of the visionary art of curandero (Ayahuasca healer) and artist Pablo Amaringo. .

    For those who have never experienced Ayahuasca, this book provides a deep and powerful look into its visionary realm. For those who have, it offers an expansion and validation of the truth of their own journeys.”

    (Robert Simmons, MetaGuide Magazines, September 2011 )

    View Pablo Amaringo’s visionary art at

    http://www.ayahuascavisions.com

  11. Posted March 23, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on BubbleGum GraveYard and commented:
    As seen on theatlantic.com, which also mentions this Wired article: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/04/the-new-psychedelic-science/


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