Ayahuasca Stimulates Formation of New Neurons in Hippocampus, Study Says

This capacity to modulate brain plasticity might mean therapeutic potential for psychiatric and neurological disorders.
Derya Ozdemir
Preparation of ayahuasca.Terpsichore/Wikimedia Commons

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic drink that has been used as a spiritual sacrament for thousands of years by indigenous people, and due to its hallucinogenic properties, it hasn't been widely studied in the Western scientific communities. Now, researchers think that it holds a potential treatment for neurological and emotional disorders, and they have more proof to confirm.

The research led by the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) showed that ayahuasca stimulates the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampi of research mice. The hippocampus is largely responsible for memory functions and learning, and the mice given the psychoactive drug performed better in memory tests.

The paper was published in Translational Psychiatry, a Nature Research journal.


Ayahuasca is brewed from leaves of a plant native to South America and contains the psychoactive compound N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) that produces intense hallucinations, per IFL Science. Moreover, it also contains compounds like harmine and tetrahydroharmine that have previously been found to influence neurogenesis in a petri dish.

In order to understand if this outside application could work inside the body and to see how ayahuasca influences neurogenesis, the scientists injected the brew into the brains of mice, then removed and analyzed their hippocampi.

It was then observed that administrated DMT was responsible for the formation of new neurons in the part of the brain responsible for making new neurons. The fact that the mice performed better in the memory tests proved that the new neurons were already working. 

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This is important news since neurogenesis is understood to happen almost exclusively in children and the adult brain can not replenish itself, reports Popular Mechanics. This could have implications for diseases like Alzheimer's and major depressive disorder.

José Ángel Morales, a researcher in the UCM and CIBERNED Department of Cellular Biology, explained, "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.

"The challenge is to activate our dormant capacity to form neurons and thus replace the neurons that die as a result of the disease. This study shows that DMT is capable of activating neural stem cells and forming new neurons."

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