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This Is How Ayahuasca Affects the Brain

The psychedelic therapy comes from a brew that combines vines and leaves.
Image: Wikimedia

The sacred plant-based medicine ayahuasca has been around for hundreds of years, used spiritually and ceremonially among tribes in South America. Recently, ayahuasca, also called grandmother, or the truth vine, has made its way outside tribal settings, as an increasingly popular method of healing and spiritual connection. This video by AsapSCIENCE explains how ayahuasca affects the brain.

Ayahuasca is a brew that combines the leaves of the Psychotria viridis plant boiled together with the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. Neither of these components has any power on their own, but together they are psychedelic. The ayahuasca brew contains DMT, a psychedelic chemical structurally similar to serotonin, and which also occurs endogenously in the human brain.


Generally, the enzymes in your gut would deactivate DMT before it's absorbed, however the vine aspect of ayahuasca inhibits normal digestive system functioning so that the chemicals can be absorbed by the body and travel through the blood brain barrier.

The effects of the brew usually occur within a half hour of consumption and can last about five hours. The ayahuasca experience, however, is not a "trip," the same way categorically similar substances like LSD or magic mushrooms might feel.

According to the video, users tend to be fully aware of the fact that they're hallucinating, and more often use ayahuasca for emotional and spiritual healing, rather than a recreational psychedelic experience. The ayahuasca itself also very acidic and frequently makes people vomit during ceremony. Very occasionally, however, fatalities have been linked to ingestion.

After an ayahuasca ceremony, users tend to feel more accepting and at peace with their situation in life. Because ayahuasca is felt throughout the entire body, and not only cerebrally, users often say they find it easier to translate the medicine experience to daily life.

Read more: Ayahuasca: a Possible Cure for Alcoholism and Depression

FMRI brain scans have shown that ayahuasca can decrease the activity in the brain's default mode network, or interacting regions of the brain, which, when overactive, is associated with depression, social phobia, and anxiety. It also can help users enter a meditative state. DMT is also associated with proteins responsible for neuroplasticity, memory, and even neuron regeneration. When these proteins combine to specific receptors in mitochondria and endoplasmic reticula, they can also potentially kill certain kinds of cancerous cells.

Studies have linked ayahuasca to healing addiction and drug abuse disorders, alcoholism, and depression. "A frequent theme mentioned by victims of abuse and recovered addicts is that the ayahuasca-induced visions helped them to recover long-forgotten memories of traumatic events that they were then able to work through, providing a basis for restructuring their personal life," according to one study.

"Ayahuasca-induced insights facilitate self-reflection, producing changes in self perspectives that can trigger psychodynamics insights which provide solutions to personal problems that underlie maladaptive lifestyles."