Rapid antidepressant effects of ayahuasca in treatment-resistant depression Options
#1 Posted : 6/19/2018 9:51:35 AM

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A recently published study looking at the antidepressant potential of ayahuasca in treating treatment-resistant depression.

Palhano-Fontes et al. 2018. Rapid antidepressant effects of the psychedelic ayahuasca in treatment-resistant depression: A randomized placebo-controlled trial. Psychological Medicine, 1-9. doi:10.1017/S0033291718001356

Full study can be accessed here:




Recent open-label trials show that psychedelics, such as ayahuasca, hold promise as fast-onset antidepressants in treatment-resistant depression.


To test the antidepressant effects of ayahuasca, we conducted a parallel-arm, double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial in 29 patients with treatment-resistant depression. Patients received a single dose of either ayahuasca or placebo. We assessed changes in depression severity with the Montgomery-Åsberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS) and the Hamilton Depression Rating scale at baseline, and at 1 (D1), 2 (D2), and 7 (D7) days after dosing.


We observed significant antidepressant effects of ayahuasca when compared with placebo at all-time points. MADRS scores were significantly lower in the ayahuasca group compared with placebo at D1 and D2 (p = 0.04), and at D7 (p < 0.0001). Between-group effect sizes increased from D1 to D7 (D1: Cohen's d = 0.84; D2: Cohen's d = 0.84; D7: Cohen's d = 1.49). Response rates were high for both groups at D1 and D2, and significantly higher in the ayahuasca group at D7 (64% v. 27%; p = 0.04). Remission rate showed a trend toward significance at D7 (36% v. 7%, p = 0.054).


To our knowledge, this is the first controlled trial to test a psychedelic substance in treatment-resistant depression. Overall, this study brings new evidence supporting the safety and therapeutic value of ayahuasca, dosed within an appropriate setting, to help treat depression. This study is registered at (NCT02914769).


The World Health Organization estimates that more than 300 million people suffer from depression (World Health Organization, 2017), and about one-third do not respond to appropriate courses of at least three different antidepressants (Conway et al., 2017). Most currently available antidepressants have a similar efficacy profile and mechanisms of action, based on the modulation of brain monoamines, and usually, take about 2 weeks to start being effective (Cai et al., 2015; Conway et al., 2017; Otte et al., 2016).

Recent evidence, however, shows a rapid and significant antidepressant effect of ketamine, an N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) antagonist frequently used in anesthesia. In recent randomized placebo-controlled trials with ketamine in treatment-resistant depression, the antidepressant effects peaked 1 day after dosing and remained significant for about 7 days (Berman et al., 2000; Zarate et al., 2006; Murrough et al., 2013; Lapidus et al., 2014).

Additionally, research with serotonergic psychedelics has gained momentum (Vollenweider and Kometer, 2010). A few centers around the world are currently exploring how these substances affect the brain, and also probing their potential in treating different psychiatric conditions, including mood disorders (Grob et al., 2011; Osório et al., 2015; Carhart-Harris et al., 2016; Griffiths et al., 2016; Ross et al., 2016; Sanches et al., 2016). For instance, recent open-label trials show that psychedelics, such as ayahuasca and psilocybin, hold promise as fast-onset antidepressants in treatment-resistant patients (Osório et al., 2015; Carhart-Harris et al., 2016; Sanches et al., 2016).

Ayahuasca is a brew traditionally used for healing and spiritual purposes by indigenous populations of the Amazon Basin (Luna, 2011; Spruce and Wallace, 190Cool. In the 1930s, it began to be used in religious settings of Brazilian small urban centers, reaching large cities in the 1980s and expanding since then to several other parts of the world (Labate and Jungaberle, 2011). In Brazil, ayahuasca has a legal status for ritual use since 1987. Ayahuasca is most often prepared by decoction of two plants (McKenna et al., 1984): Psychotria viridis that contains the psychedelic N,N-dimethyltryptamine (N,N-DMT), a serotonin and sigma-1 receptors agonist (Carbonaro and Gatch, 2016), and Banisteriopsis caapi, rich in reversible monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOi) such as harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine (Riba et al., 2003).

The acute psychological effects of ayahuasca last around 4 h and include intense perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and affective changes (Shanon, 2002; Riba et al., 2003; Frecska et al., 2016). Although nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are often reported, mounting evidence points to a positive safety profile of ayahuasca. For instance, ayahuasca is not addictive and has not been associated with psychopathological, personality, or cognitive deterioration, and it promotes only moderate sympathomimetic effects (Grob et al., 1996; Callaway et al., 1999; Dos Santos et al., 2011; Bouso et al., 2012; Barbosa et al., 2016).

In a recent open-label trial, 17 patients with major depressive disorder attended a single dosing session with ayahuasca. Depression severity was assessed before, during and after dosing, using the Hamilton Depression Rating scale (HAM-D) and the Montgomery–Åsberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS) (Sanches et al., 2016). Significant reduction in depression severity was found already in the first hours after dosing, an effect that remained significant for 21 days (Osório et al., 2015; Sanches et al., 2016).

Although promising, these studies have not controlled for the placebo effect, which can be remarkably high in clinical trials for depression, reaching 30–40% of the patients (Sonawalla and Rosenbaum, 2002). To address this issue, and to further test the antidepressant effects of ayahuasca, we conducted a randomized placebo-controlled trial in patients with treatment-resistant depression. Additionally, we explored for correlations between the antidepressant and the acute effects of ayahuasca.



We found evidence of rapid antidepressant effect after a single dosing session with ayahuasca when compared with placebo. Depression severity changed significantly but differently for the ayahuasca and placebo groups. Improvements in the psychiatric scales in the ayahuasca group were significantly higher than those of the placebo group at all time points after dosing, with increasing between-group effect sizes from D1 to D7. Response rates were high for both groups at D1 and D2 and were significantly higher in the ayahuasca group at D7. Between-groups remission rate showed a trend toward significance at D7.

The within-group effect size found for ayahuasca at D7 (Cohen's d = 2.22) is compatible with our earlier open-label study (Cohen's d at D7 = 1.83) (Sanches et al., 2016), and compatible with the one found in a recent open-label trial with psilocybin for depression (Hedges’ g = 3.1) (Carhart-Harris et al., 2016). Our results are comparable with randomized controlled trials that used ketamine in treatment-resistant depression. Although both ketamine and ayahuasca are associated with rapid antidepressant effects, their response time-courses and mechanisms of action seem to differ. Previous studies with ketamine have found the largest between-group effect size at D1 (Cohen's d = 0.89), reducing toward D7 (Cohen's d = 0.41) (Berman et al., 2000; Zarate et al., 2006; Murrough et al., 2013; Lapidus et al., 2014). In contrast, the effect sizes observed herein were large, but smallest, at D1 (Cohen's d = 0.84), and largest at D7 (Cohen's d = 1.49). These differences are also reflected in the response rates. At D1, the response rate to ketamine lies between 37 and 70%, whereas in our study 50% of the patients responded to ayahuasca. At D7, the ketamine response rate ranges between 7 and 35% (Berman et al., 2000; Zarate et al., 2006; Murrough et al., 2013; Lapidus et al., 2014), while in our study 64% responded to ayahuasca.

The placebo effect was high in our study, and higher than most studies with. While we find a response rate to placebo of 46% at D1, and 26% at D7, ketamine trials have found a placebo effect of the order of 0–6% at D1, and 0–11% at D7 (Berman et al., 2000; Zarate et al., 2006; Murrough et al., 2013; Lapidus et al., 2014). Several factors may account for the high placebo effect observed herein. First, the higher placebo effect has been found in patients with low socioeconomic status (Sonawalla and Rosenbaum, 2002), which was the case of our study. Most patients were living under significant psychosocial stressors, and during our trial, they stayed at a ‘very comfortable and very supportive environment’, as reported by the patients themselves. Therefore, part of the increased placebo effects found in our study might be due to this ‘care effect’. Second, patients with comorbid personality disorders present higher placebo responses (Ripoll, 2013), and in our study, most patients (76%) also suffered from personality disorders, most of them in cluster B.

A growing body of evidence gives support to the observed rapid antidepressant effects of ayahuasca (Palhano-Fontes et al., 2014). For instance, sigma-1 receptors (σ1R) have been implicated in depression, and it was reported to be activated by N, N-DMT (Cai et al., 2015; Carbonaro and Gatch, 2016). Moreover, it has been shown that the administration of σ1R agonists results in antidepressant-like effects, which are blocked by σ1R antagonism (Cai et al., 2015). Furthermore, σ1R upregulates neurotrophic factors such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and nerve growth factor (NGF), proteins whose regulation and expression seem to be involved in the pathophysiology of depression (Cai et al., 2015). Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that antidepressants with σ1R agonist profile do not present clinically significant antidepressant effect. For instance, the antidepressant fluvoxamine, which has a high affinity for σ1R do not present response rates compatible to that was found herein (Delgado et al., 1988; Hashimoto, 2009).

The effects observed might be in part due to the presence of MAOi in the brew. In fact, studies in animal models reported that chronic administration of harmine reduces immobility time, increases climbing and swimming time, reverses anhedonia, increases adrenal gland weight, and increases BDNF levels in the hippocampus (Fortunato et al., 2010a, 2010b). All of these are compatible with antidepressant effects. Likewise, harmine seems to stimulate neurogenesis of human neural progenitor cells, derived from pluripotent stem cells (Dakic et al., 2016), and progenitor cells from adult mice brains (Morales-García et al., 2017), a mechanism also observed in rodents following antidepressant treatment. In addition, a recent study in rodents found that a single ayahuasca dose increases swimming time in a forced-swim test (Pic-Taylor et al., 2015).

Brain circuits modulated by psychedelics show great overlap with those involved in mood disorders (Vollenweider and Kometer, 2010). We recently found that a single ayahuasca session in patients with depression increases blood flow in brain regions consistently implicated in the regulation of mood and emotions, such as the left nucleus accumbens, right insula and left subgenual area (Otte et al., 2016; Sanches et al., 2016). Moreover, we have shown that ayahuasca reduces the activity of the Default Mode Network (Palhano-Fontes et al., 2015), a brain network found to be hyperactive in depression (Sheline et al., 2009).

Over the last two decades, mental health evaluations of regular ayahuasca consumers have shown preserved cognitive function, increased well-being, reduction of anxiety, and depressive symptoms when compared to non-ayahuasca consumers (Grob et al., 1996; Bouso et al., 2012; Barbosa et al., 2016). Moreover, a recent study observed that a single dose of ayahuasca enhanced mindfulness-related capacities (Soler et al., 2016), and meditation practices have been associated with antidepressant effects (Segal et al., 2010).

Prior studies suggest that elements of the psychedelic experience, such as experiences of mystical-type, account for the therapeutic benefit (Bogenschutz et al., 2015; Garcia-Romeu et al., 2015; Majić et al., 2015; Griffiths et al., 2016; Ross et al., 2016). We found significant increased MEQ30 scores during the effects of ayahuasca. We also observed an inverse correlation between MADRS score changes at D7 with ‘transcendence of time and space’ MEQ30 factor.

Furthermore, HRS dimensions seem important to the clinical outcome, particularly ‘perception’, a subscale that comprehends changes in visual, auditory, and body sensations. Visions are common during the effects of ayahuasca, and are most frequent with the eyes closed (Shanon, 2002; De Araujo et al., 2012). It has been suggested that visions may play an important role in the therapeutic effect of ayahuasca, as they may help bringing clarity to introspective events (Frecska et al., 2016). It is interesting to observe that changes in perception taken alone are not sufficient to predict the positive clinical outcome, as for instance, we find that some patients presented increased scores in ‘perception’ without significant clinical response.

No serious adverse events were observed during or after dosing. Although 100% of the patients reported feeling safe, the ayahuasca session was not necessarily a pleasant experience. In fact, some patients reported the opposite, as the experience was accompanied by much psychological distress. Most patients reported nausea, and about 57% have vomited, although vomiting is traditionally not considered a side effect of ayahuasca, but rather part of a purging process (Tafur, 2017).

Although promising, this study has some caveats and limitations worth mentioning. The number of participants is modest, and therefore randomized trials in larger populations are necessary. The study was limited to patients with treatment-resistant depression, with a long course of illness, and high comorbid personality disorder, which altogether precludes a simple extension of these results to other classes of depression. Another challenge of the research with psychedelics is maintaining double blindness, as the effects of psychedelics are unique. We were particularly keen to ensure blindness throughout the entire experiment, and to that end, we adopted a series of additional measures to preserve blindness. All patients were naïve to ayahuasca, with no previous experience with any other psychedelic substance. Clinical evaluations involved a team of five psychiatrists. For every patient, one psychiatrist was responsible for clinical evaluation during the dosing session and a different one for the follow-up assessments. The substance used as placebo increased anxiety and induced nausea. In fact, five patients misclassified placebo as ayahuasca, and two of them showed a response at D7 (online Supplementary Table S2). Therefore, we believe blindness was adequately preserved in our study.

Since the prohibition of psychedelics in the late 1960s, research with these substances has almost come to a halt. Before research restrictions, psychedelics were at early stage testing for many psychiatric conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and alcohol dependence. By mid-1960s, over 40.000 subjects had participated in clinical research with psychedelics, most of them in uncontrolled settings (Vollenweider and Kometer, 2010). To our knowledge, this is the first randomized placebo-controlled trial to investigate the antidepressant potential of a psychedelic in a population of patients with treatment-resistant depression. Overall, this study brings new evidence supporting the safety and therapeutic value of psychedelics, dosed within an appropriate setting, to help treat depression.

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#2 Posted : 6/20/2018 2:25:42 AM


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Isn't this a huge deal? A potential effective treatment for depression from a natural herbal medicine with a long proven history of safe use in the amazon?

This disease is a huge issue in our time. We need to be grownups about it and be serious here. Set our preconceptions aside and go with what works. However, not a peep from the media that I can see.

What's going on here? Crying or very sad

How about this for a headline:

"Ancient rainforest medicine could treat modern day depression"

It's almost like the plot of the movie below, except that instead of cancer, they find a cure for depression with the mass spec plots coming from benzyme and endlessness instead of Sean Connery and Lorraine Bracco.
Loveall attached the following image(s):
Medicine_man.jpg (23kb) downloaded 90 time(s).
“... (a) psychedelic substance occasionally causes psychotic behaviour in people who have not taken it.”
Excerpt from a McKenna talk transcript / audio.
#3 Posted : 6/20/2018 4:56:59 PM

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Ayahuasca always does make me feel a lot better, afterwards. And this feeling can last for more than a month, so it doesn't realy surprise me.

The article does make it seem as if it's not realy one single ingredient that's responsible for this effect, but rather the special synergy between harmala alks and DMT.

That doesn't surprise me either. I find psilohuasca a nicer experience than shrooms by themselves, and it also has a more powerfull and longer lasting afterglow. At least for me personally.

The fact that an ayahuasca experience can sometimes be a bit challenging, probably plays a role as well. Getting out of your comfortzone is the number 1 thing for a healthy and happy life.
#4 Posted : 6/21/2018 12:16:05 AM

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Thanks for sharing, cool study Smile

LOL Loveall, who would I be, Sean Connery or Lorraine Bracco? Very happy
#5 Posted : 6/22/2018 2:50:27 AM


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endlessness wrote:
Thanks for sharing, cool study Smile

LOL Loveall, who would I be, Sean Connery or Lorraine Bracco? Very happy

Big grin Um.... I had to think this one over.

Sean Connery is the one living in the jungle learning about the plants and the one who is friends with the Shaman and studying the brews with medicinal properties, while Lorraine Bracco is the one bringing up the analytical equipment which is her expertise...

So... I would say you are Sean Connery Razz
“... (a) psychedelic substance occasionally causes psychotic behaviour in people who have not taken it.”
Excerpt from a McKenna talk transcript / audio.
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