Ayahuasca seems to have interesting effects
Ariel Levy has a long and interesting article on ayahuasca in the New Yorker. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here’s just a snippet:
. . . Having studied fMRIs and EEGs of subjects on ayahuasca, Araujo thinks that the brain’s “default-mode network”—the system that burbles with thought, mulling the past and the future, while your mind isn’t focussed on a task—is temporarily relieved of its duties. Meanwhile, the thalamus, which is involved in awareness, is activated. The change in the brain, he notes, is similar to the one that results from years of meditation.
Dennis McKenna told me, “In shamanism, the classic theme is death and rebirth—you are reborn in a new configuration. The neuroscientific interpretation is exactly the same: the default-mode network is disrupted, and maybe things that were mucking up the works are left behind when everything comes back together.”
In the early nineties, McKenna, Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, and James Callaway, a pharmaceutical chemist, conducted a study in Manaus, Brazil, that investigated the effects of ayahuasca on long-term users. Fifteen men who had taken part in bimonthly ceremonies for at least a decade were compared with a control group of people with similar backgrounds. The researchers drew blood from the subjects and assessed the white blood cells, which are powerful indicators of the condition of the central nervous system. (McKenna told me, “In psychopharmacology, we say, ‘If it’s going on in the platelets, it’s probably going on in the brain.’ ”) They found that the serotonin reuptake transporters—the targets that many contemporary antidepressants work on—were elevated among habitual ayahuasca drinkers. “We thought, What does this mean?” McKenna said. They couldn’t find any research on people with abnormally high levels of the transporters, but there was an extensive body of literature on low levels: the condition is common among those with intractable depression, and in people who suffer from Type 2 alcoholism, which is associated with bouts of violent behavior. “We thought, Holy shit! Is it possible that the ayahuasca actuallyreverses these deficits over the long term?” McKenna pointed out that no other known drug has this effect. “There’s only one other instance of a factor that affects this upregulation—and that’s aging.” He wondered if ayahuasca is imparting something to its drinkers that we associate with maturity: wisdom.
Charles Grob told me, “Some of these guys were leading disreputable lives and they became radically transformed—responsible pillars of their community.” But, he noted, the men were taking ayahuasca as part of a religious ceremony: their church, União do Vegetal, is centered on integrating the ayahuasca experience into everyday life. Grob cautioned, “You have to take it with a facilitator who has some knowledge, experience, and ethics.” In unregulated ceremonies, several women have been molested, and at times people have turned violent. Last year, during a ceremony at an ayahuasca center in Iquitos, Peru, a young British man started brandishing a kitchen knife and yelling; a Canadian man who was also on ayahuasca wrestled it from him and stabbed him to death.
Grob speculated that the shaman in that case had spiked the ayahuasca. Often, when things go wrong, it is after a plant called datura is added to the pharmacological mix. “Maybe facilitators think, Oh, Americans will get more bang for their buck,” Grob said. He also wondered if the knife-wielding British man had been suffering a psychotic break: like many hallucinogens, ayahuasca is thought to have the potential to trigger initial episodes in people who are predisposed to them.
Problems can also arise if someone takes ayahuasca—with its potent MAOI—on top of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a common class of antidepressants. The simultaneous blocking of serotonin uptake and serotonin degradation encourages enormous amounts of the neurotransmitter to flood the synapses. The outcome can be disastrous: a condition called serotonin syndrome, which starts with shivering, diarrhea, hyperthermia, and palpitations and can progress to muscular rigidity, convulsions, and even death. “I get calls from family members or friends of people who seem to be in a persistent state of confusion,” Grob said. He had just received a desperate e-mail from the mother of a young woman who had become disoriented in the midst of a ceremony. “She ran off from where she was, and when she was found she was having breathing difficulties and is now having what appears to be a P.T.S.D. reaction.”
These cases are rare, but profoundly upsetting trips are common. People on ayahuasca regularly report experiencing their own death; one man told Araujo that he had a terrifying visualization of being trapped in a coffin. “There are some people who are getting damaged from it because they’re not using it the right way,” Dennis McKenna warned. “It’s a psychotherapeutic process: if they don’t integrate the stuff that comes up, it can be very traumatic. That’s the whole thing with ayahuasca—or any psychedelic, really. Set and setting is all-important: they’ve been telling us this since Leary! It’s not to be treated lightly.” . . .