Ayahuasca Could Do Something Amazing to Your Brain, Study Shows

Caroline Delbert
·3-min read

From Popular Mechanics

  • Mice that were given ayahuasca grew new neurons that helped them excel in memory tasks.

  • Neurogenesis, the production of new neurons, is very limited in adults.

  • The research could have ramifications for diseases like Alzheimer's or depression.

In a new study, researchers found the traditional psychoactive drug ayahuasca stimulates the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampi of research mice. The hippocampus is responsible for many memory functions, and the mice dosed with ayahuasca also performed better in a battery of memory tests.

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While ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic and often purgative tea brewed from leaves of a shrub that grows in South America, contains the psychoactive compound N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), it also packs harmine and tetrahydoharmine, two compounds that form new neurons from stem cells in a petri dish, per IFL Science.

Ayahuasca is used in spiritual practices across different belief systems, and Healthline explains that the plant’s naturally occurring DMT—which can produce powerful hallucinations and visions—works in tandem with another compound that makes it more “bioavailable.” That means it’s absorbed better by the body, with less flushed out as waste afterward. Think about how calcium and vitamin D work together to increase absorption.

DMT is the secret agent in this research, literally—besides ayahuasca, DMT is found in a variety of contexts in humans and animals. Scientists believe DMT’s chemical role is to boost and trigger certain chemical reactions in the body. And because it naturally occurs in ayahuasca, too, it was natural to wonder if this outside application could work inside the body the same way.

Unfortunately, the experimental mice weren’t drinking from tiny tea cups; instead, the scientists gave the mice injections of the compound at regular intervals.

Further Reading

The researchers explain in their new paper:

“Our results demonstrate that DMT administration activates the main adult neurogenic niche, the subgranular zone of the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, promoting newly generated neurons in the granular zone. Moreover, these mice performed better, compared to control non-treated animals, in memory tests, which suggest a functional relevance for the DMT-induced new production of neurons in the hippocampus.”

The scientists observed new neurons in the part of the brain responsible for making new neurons, suggesting the administered DMT was responsible. And then, when the mice performed better in the memory tests, the scientists could tell the new neurons were really working. This is big news, because neurogenesis overall is understood to happen almost exclusively in children. The rest of our cells cycle and regenerate and replace themselves, but the adult brain is like a Jell-O salad that is not replenished.

Photo credit: Wade Davis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Wade Davis - Getty Images

The scientists say these results bode well for future research, because neurogenesis could help treat a variety of degenerative diseases of the brain and might even help mental illnesses like major depression. Scientists don’t fully understand how the existing body of antidepressants even work in the first place.

“In fact, the stimulation of neurogenesis has already been proposed as a new therapeutic strategy for psychiatric and neurological diseases,” the researchers explain, “and several studies have reported that the clinical efficacy of antidepressant drugs is frequently linked to the capacity of these drugs to induce neurogenesis.”

Like willow bark and countless other ancient compounds, people have known for millennia that ayahuasca is doing something that adds value to their lives. Science is just catching up and quantifying the effects.

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