A drink with hallucinogenic properties made from plants native to South America that has been used in healing ceremonies may also be a potential treatment for depression, according to a small study conducted by researchers in Brazil.
Ayahuasca, a drink that is traditionally brewed from the bark of a jungle vine and leaves of a shrub, has been used by shamen in the Amazon basin for centuries. More recently, it has been looked at as a potential treatment for conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
Jaime Hallak, MD, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Sao Paulo, and colleagues enrolled six volunteers with depression who had failed on antidepressants. There was no placebo group. The six were given doses of ayahuasca while researchers asked them questions from a clinical questionnaire about how they were feeling.
Three hours after ingestion, participants reported that their symptoms of depression eased, and the therapeutic impact of the drink lasted for up to three weeks, the researchers reported in Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria (Brazilian Review of Psychiatry).
The reason why ayahuasca may have antidepressant-like effects is that the plants used to make the drink contain compounds know to impact levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.
The researchers are already conducting a placebo-controlled study of ayahuasca as a depression treatment with plans to enroll 80 participants.
A psychedelic drink used for centuries in healing ceremonies is now attracting the attention of biomedical scientists as a possible treatment for depression. Researchers from Brazil last month published results from the first clinical test of a potential therapeutic benefit for ayahuasca, a South American plant-based brew.
Although the study included just six volunteers and no placebo group, the scientists say that the drink began to reduce depression in patients within hours, and the effect was still present after three weeks. They are now conducting larger studies that they hope will shore up their findings.