Humans have used psychedelic drugs for thousands of years. Many ancient civilisations used them for spiritual or religious purposes, while today many people simply use them recreationally. There are, however, many cultures today that still use psychedelics for ceremonial reasons. One of these drugs is ayahuasca, which has been used by indigenous communities as a spiritual sacrament for thousands of years.
Recently, however, scientists have learned that ayahuasca may have a purpose beyond spiritual enlightenment. In a new study, researchers revealed that the drug promotes the birth of new brain cells, and promotes neurogenesis.
What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic drink. Indigenous populations in South America consume the brew as a part of Shamanic or religious ceremonies. These communities have been doing this for thousands of years.
Traditionally, a shaman or curandero will make the brew from two plants: the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub, and the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. They may add other plants in as well .
N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is the main psychoactive compound in the concoction. It produces similar effects to those of other psychedelics, like LSD or magic mushrooms. DMT has low bioavailability, however, so enzymes in your liver called monoamine oxidases (MAOs) break it down very quickly .
Banisteriopsis caapi, however, contains potent MAO inhibitors (MAOIs), which allow DMT to take effect. The specific MAOIs that the vine contains are called β-carbolines, which also have psychoactive properties .
These two plants in combination are very powerful. They can lead to an altered state of consciousness, and cause hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, and euphoria.
Today, scientists are learning that DMT, and thus ayahuasca, may play an important role in brain function and repair.
What is Neurogeneis?
Neurogenesis is the process by which your brain forms new neurons. This is crucial when an embryo is developing, but also continues to occur after birth and throughout your life in certain areas of your brain .
Neuroscientists used to believe that the central nervous system, including the brain, was incapable of neurogenesis. Today, however, they know that it is in fact possible. In fact, they now know that it is a normal process in a healthy brain.
This process is called adult neurogenesis. As of now, we know it occurs in three areas of the brain:
- the subgranular zone (SGZ) of the dentate gyrus in the hippocampus, which is a region that is involved in regulating learning and memory
- the subventricular zone (SVZ), which is situated throughout the lateral walls of the brain’s lateral ventricles.
- the amygdala
Scientists have done research on the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus which suggests that different factors can increase or decrease adult neurogenesis. Exercise, for example, can increase it, while depression and age can decrease it .
Study: Ayahuasca Promotes Neurogenesis
Previous studies have shown that ayahuasca produces antidepressant effects . Other research hypothesised that the antidepressant effects of the drug stem from its ability to stimulate neuron production (aka- kick-start neurogenesis) .
A team of scientists at the Complutense University of Madrid wanted to understand exactly how DMT induces neurogenesis. This, then, would make it possible to use the drug as a treatment for various psychiatric and neurological disorders, such as neurodegenerative diseases.
The researchers used mice to prove that DMT does in fact promote acute neurogenesis. They also demonstrated that these new neurons led to improvements in the mice’s memory and cognition.
“These observations are in agreement with previous works showing that adult hippocampal neurogenesis plays an important role in these cognitive functions,” the researchers said .
What the researchers found, however, was that the mechanism responsible for this neurogenesis was separate from the mechanism that produces the drug’s psychedelic effects.
Most scientists agree that psychedelic drugs stimulate the 5-HT2A serotonin receptors in your brain. There has been a debate, however, over whether or not these drugs induce neurogenesis through the same receptors .
Based on their findings, the Spanish researchers are now suggesting that DMT mediates neurogenesis through sigma-1 receptors (S1R).
“The results here obtained indicate that the observed effects of DMT are mediated by the activation of the S1R,” the researchers said. “In this regard, it has been shown that the stimulation of the S1R by different agonists enhances neurogenesis in the hippocampus.” 
Future Uses for Neurological Disorders
This means that it is possible to use DMT to induce neurogenesis without the hallucinogenic and psychoactive effects. This is incredibly important for treating neurological disorders. Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons, for example, are both a result of the death of certain types of neurons .
“This capacity to modulate brain plasticity suggests that it has great therapeutic potential for a wide range of psychiatric and neurological disorders, including neurodegenerative diseases,” said José Ángel Morales, one of the authors of the research .
That being said, many experts within the psychedelic research community still question whether the psychedelic effects of psychedelic drugs are important to the drug’s therapeutic benefits.
“The challenge is to activate our dormant capacity to form neurons and thus replace the neurons that die as a result of the disease,” said Morales. “This study shows that DMT is capable of activating neural stem cells and forming new neurons.” 
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