Long-Term Use Of Ayahuasca Found To Change Physical Brain Structure
Ayahuasca has long been used as a traditional medicine and entheogen, allowing users to explore the depths of their soul, their mind, and their very being. The result is often a feeling of oneness, spirituality and contentment with life. It has made it an excellent treatment for those suffering from addiction – to the point where Western medicine is now investigating its potential applications.
But of course, when science starts looking into potential therapeutic effects of a substance, scientists tend to try and uncover absolutely everything they can about it – and for good reason, there is always something new to learn, even after decades of researching something. One such discovery regarding Ayahuasca is that its long-term use appears to change the very structure of regions of the brain itself, along with the personality and cognitive ability that these regions control.
Back in 2012, a group of scientists from the Sant Pau Institute in Barcelona embarked on a scientific investigation to determine whether the long-term use of ayahuasca was safe – it is all very well and good it being able to treat things like addiction, but was it potentially causing some kind of underlying damage we didn’t know about? Fortunately, the group concluded that, no, ayahuasca causes no long-term harm to users.
Around the same time, another group of scientists also decided to investigate the way ayahuasca can affect us after long-term use, but took a slightly different approach. Instead of assessing whether there was harm, they instead wanted to investigate whether there was change, and what they have found is extremely significant.
The investigators compared the MRI brain scans of 22 regular ayahuasca users with 22 matched control participants, who had never used it in their lives. The ayahuasca users had all used ayahuasca at least 50 times for spiritual practices in the last year, equating to roughly once every two weeks. A great deal of care was taken to control that users had no history of cognitive or psychiatric disorders, and had not used other drugs of any kind in a significant amount – ensuring a high probability that any change found would be due to the use of Ayahuasca.
It was found that the cortical thickness of eight regions of the brain had significantly changed when each scan was compared to its control counterpart. The most noticeable change was in the posterior cingulate cortex, which had thinned. This is the area of the brain largely responsible for the ego and the self. Conversely, the anterior cingulate cortex had thickened – being the region responsible for attention and cognitive control. A correlation was also found between the years of regular ayahuasca use and the significance of the change in the brain.
HOW COULD AYAHUASCA CHANGE THE BRAIN
Authors have put the change down to ayahuasca triggering certain genes responsible for modulating the growth of neural connections. As these genes are triggered when these areas of the brain are being activated by Ayahuasca, it could make sense that they shift in structure.
In the exact words of the researchers, “it is plausible that the direct pharmacological action of DMT accounts for the observed structural differences after repeated exposure to ayahuasca.”
THE PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS
So what does this all mean? Well, a shift in brain structure is not a bad thing. Many things influence the way the brain develops; this is just an observable example – but of course, much more investigation is required to see what the implications of this may truly be.
From this research, there were a couple of notable differences caused by the change in brain structure. For one, participants had differing scores from their controls on both personality and neuropsychology tests, with ayahuasca users scoring lower in personality traits associated with pessimism and worrying, and higher for self-transcendence.
On a practical level, ayahuasca users performed significantly better than their controls in tests assessing memory, planning, and set-shifting. No negative effects were found. However, as this research only assess one point in time, it cannot irrefutably establish causation, or that there are no negative effects to be had. Much more research and repetition of this study on a larger basis are required.
One thing is for sure, though, these results are extremely interesting, and have big implications for the future of ayahuasca use – things are looking positive. We eagerly await the next set of findings into what ayahuasca can and can’t do!