The First Controlled Ayahuasca Trial Finds “Significant” Promise For Treatment-Resistant Depression

Indigenous communities have been taking ayahuasca to heal for millennia, but there’s been little science to back up their claims.

Jun 17, 2018
woman drinking ayahuasca

Photo by EITAN ABRAMOVICH / Staff via Getty Images

A new study has found that ayahuasca—a hallucinogenic drink traditionally consumed in the Amazon—holds promise for alleviating the symptoms of treatment-resistant depression.

The study was conducted by a group of Brazilian scientists, funded by the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, and published on Friday in Psychological Medicine. Notably, the research was conducted as a double-blind, randomized, and placebo-controlled trial—the gold standard of scientific research. “To our knowledge,” conclude the authors, “this is the first controlled trial to test a psychedelic substance in treatment-resistant depression.”

After conducting the trial with 29 patients, the researchers concluded that ayahuasca is safe and successfully alleviated the symptoms of those who were unable to find relief with conventional medications. This is significant as, according to the World Health Organization, roughly one-third of the estimated 300 million people living with depression are treatment-resistant. Treatment-resistant depression is also a leading cause of suicide.

“They improved already in the first hours after ayahuasca intake,” said Psychiatry professor Jaime Hallak, one of the study’s co-authors, in a press release. According to the study, 64 percent of the patients who were administered ayahuasca responded positively, with the researchers describing the antidepressant effects of ayahuasca as “significant.”

Indigenous communities in the Amazon have taken ayahuasca for therapeutic and spiritual reasons for millennia. More recently, the molasses-like brew has become popular among Westerners seeking healing and spiritual awakening. 

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Picture taken on August 09, 2014 of a healer starting an ayahuasca ceremony in La Calera, Cundinamarca department, Colombia. (Photo By Eitan Abramovich /AFP via Getty Images)

While little research has been conducted on the therapeutic properties of ayahuasca, much anecdotal evidence exists on its ability to treat conditions ranging from depression to addiction.

One 2013 observational study from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), for example, surveyed participants at ayahuasca retreats in British Columbia. The study found “statistically significantly” reductions in self-reported alcohol, tobacco and cocaine use six months after the retreat, although participants’ self-reported cannabis and opiate use remained the same.

Many have also taken to the internet to report ayahuasca’s spiritual benefit. Some say that ayahuasca helped them to make difficult but necessary changes in their life. 

From Brooklyn to Berlin, ayahuasca has quickly gained prominence among artists and Silicon Valley types. But scientists who study ayahuasca hope to change its connotation (at least as it exists in the West) into a medically-accepted form of treatment for patients who have run out of options. This recent study conducted in Brazil is a major stride in that direction.

As this body of research continues to grow so will concerns about cultural sensitivity and how to balance respect for ancient traditions with that of scientific credibility. As Dr. Draulio de Araújo, one of the study’s co-author says: “These are powerful substances that should be treated with great respect and used in appropriate settings and with appropriate intentions.”

Jun 17, 2018