Exploring the therapeutic potential of Ayahuasca: acute intake increases mindfulness-related capacities

Abstract

Background

Ayahuasca is a psychotropic plant tea used for ritual purposes by the indigenous populations of the Amazon. In the last two decades, its use has expanded worldwide. The tea contains the psychedelic 5-HT2A receptor agonist N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), plus β-carboline alkaloids with monoamine-oxidase-inhibiting properties. Acute administration induces an introspective dream-like experience characterized by visions and autobiographic and emotional memories. Studies of long-term users have suggested its therapeutic potential, reporting that its use has helped individuals abandon the consumption of addictive drugs. Furthermore, recent open-label studies in patients with treatment-resistant depression found that a single ayahuasca dose induced a rapid antidepressant effect that was maintained weeks after administration. Here, we conducted an exploratory study of the psychological mechanisms that could underlie the beneficial effects of ayahuasca.

Methods

We assessed a group of 25 individuals before and 24 h after an ayahuasca session using two instruments designed to measure mindfulness capacities: The Five Facets Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) and the Experiences Questionnaire (EQ).

Results

Ayahuasca intake led to significant increases in two facets of the FFMQ indicating a reduction in judgmental processing of experiences and in inner reactivity. It also led to a significant increase in decentering ability as measured by the EQ. These changes are classic goals of conventional mindfulness training, and the scores obtained are in the range of those observed after extensive mindfulness practice.

Conclusions

The present findings support the claim that ayahuasca has therapeutic potential and suggest that this potential is due to an increase in mindfulness capacities.

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Acknowledgments

The authors wish to thanks the volunteers for their participation.

Contributors

Jordi Riba, Amanda Feilding, Pablo Friedlander, and Joaquim Soler conceived and designed the study. Steven Barker analyzed the ayahuasca and Jordi Riba and Alba Franquesa collected the data. Matilde Elices and Juan Carlos Pascual performed the statistical analyses and wrote the first version of the manuscript. All authors contributed to the final version of this manuscript and approved it.

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Correspondence to Jordi Riba.

Ethics declarations

The study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki and subsequent amendments concerning research in humans and was approved by the Sant Pau Hospital Ethics Committee. All volunteers gave their written informed consent to participate.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Funding

This study was supported by the Beckley Foundation.

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Soler, J., Elices, M., Franquesa, A. et al. Exploring the therapeutic potential of Ayahuasca: acute intake increases mindfulness-related capacities. Psychopharmacology 233, 823–829 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-015-4162-0

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Keywords

  • Ayahuasca
  • Therapeutic potential
  • Mindfulness
  • Decentering
  • Human