Czech scientists take part in Amazonian ayahuasca ceremony to test it as treatment for depression

Although the substance known as ayahuasca is illegal in Czechia, there have been some scientific studies showing that it could have potential as a treatment for depression. In order to test its therapeutic possibilities, Czech scientists have travelled to Peru to partake in the infamous ceremony and try out the drug themselves.

Ayahuasca | Photo: Forest Starr,  Kim Starr,  Flickr,  CC BY 3.0 US

Western tourists seeking out spiritual experiences and altered states of consciousness have long been travelling to South America to take part in the indigenous shamanic ritual that involves drinking the infamous ayahuasca tea, which contains a psychedelic substance and can induce a trance-like state. But more recently, studies have shown that the drug might have uses beyond new experiences and a good travelling story to tell your friends – it could have potential for treating depression.

The group of Czech scientists who have travelled to the Amazon to partake in the ceremony want to see how important the ritualistic aspect is for treating mental health disorders as compared with taking the drug by itself in a different setting, as Tomáš Páleníček from the Psychedelic Research Centre explains:

Tomáš Páleníček | Photo: National Institute of Mental Health

“Ayahuasca contains Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, which is very similar to psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. DMT has already been tested as a treatment for depression and has been shown to have great therapeutic potential. What we are trying to do with our expeditions is to see whether these active substances produce the same or different effects when used during a shamanic ritual as compared with in medical facilities, laboratories and in therapeutic contexts.”

Although the substance is illegal in Czechia, the Ministry of Health has granted special permission for it to be used on the premises of the University of Chemistry and Technology. One of the researchers from the university, chemist Martin Kuchař, is part of the expedition and took part in the ayahuasca ceremony himself. He says that the setting can play a big part in the experience:

“The area is full of hot springs and the scenery is just beautiful. Of course, the sounds of the jungle and the singing of the shaman create a specific kind of mystical atmosphere, which then also manifests itself in the psychedelic experience.”

Photo: National Institute of Mental Health

The tea can also be made in different ways and at different strengths, so no two brews will be exactly the same, which also naturally produces different effects and experiences:

“The ayahuasca tea contains at least two different types of natural ingredients. One of them is called banisteriopsis caapi, which is a liana plant, a kind of climbing vine. The other is psychotria virdis, also known as chacruna or chacrona. These are the leaves that contain DMT. We made at least 10 different variations of the drink because every shaman makes it slightly differently.”

In order to empirically test the effects of the drug on brain activity, the scientists have brought portable devices to measure brain activity using EEG recordings. Tomáš Páleníček from the Psychedelic Research Centre describes some of the preliminary results:

“The ceremony takes about 3 or 4 hours. For most of that time, the shaman is sitting there, singing and of course drinking the ayahuasca. If you look at the EEG trace, you can see that during the course of the ceremony there is a greater amount of synchronous activity than there was at the beginning.”

Setting up EEGs for twenty ceremony participants at the same time is not easy and requires a lot of demanding technical preparation, so the scientists have mainly been testing the drink under the guidance of shamans on themselves so far. The effects can be awe-inspiring, but also unpleasant, says Páleníček.

“You see things that you wouldn’t see under normal circumstances. If you have your eyes closed, you might experience dream-like states, visions of space, or feel like you are experiencing non-existence or death. You also sweat, you can have different physical symptoms which are unpleasant, like vomiting, your head can spin. Every experience is different.”

Illustrative photo: fszalai,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

The scientists are now processing the data, with the results expected at the end of the summer, and another research trip is planned for next year.