New World Tryptamine Hallucinogens and the Neuroscience of Ayahuasca

  • Dennis McKenna
  • Jordi RibaEmail author
Part of the Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences book series (CTBN, volume 36)


New World indigenous peoples are noted for their sophisticated use of psychedelic plants in shamanic and ethnomedical practices. The use of psychedelic plant preparations among New World tribes is far more prevalent than in the Old World. Yet, although these preparations are botanically diverse, almost all are chemically similar in that their active principles are tryptamine derivatives, either DMT or related constituents. Part 1 of this paper provides an ethnopharmacological overview of the major tryptamine-containing New World hallucinogens. Part 2 focuses on ayahuasca and its effects on the human brain. Using complementary neurophysiological and neuroimaging techniques, we have identified brain areas involved in the cognitive effects induced by this complex botanical preparation. Initial SPECT data showed that ayahuasca modulated activity in higher order association areas of the brain. Increased blood perfusion was observed mainly in anterior brain regions encompassing the frontomedial and anterior cingulate cortices of the frontal lobes, and in the medial regions of the temporal lobes. On the other hand, applying spectral analysis and source location techniques to cortical electrical signals, we found changes in neuronal activity that predominated in more posterior sensory-selective areas of the brain. Now, using functional connectivity analysis of brain oscillations we have been able to reconcile these seemingly contradictory findings. By measuring transfer entropy, a metric based on information theory, we have shown that ayahuasca temporarily modifies the ordinary flow of information within the brain. We propose a model in which ayahuasca reduces top-down constraints and facilitates bottom-up information transfer. By simultaneously enhancing endogenous cortical excitability and reducing higher-order cognitive control, ayahuasca temporarily disrupts neural hierarchies allowing inner exploration and a new outlook on reality.


Tryptamine derivatives Tryptamine hallucinogen Hallucinogenic New World Shamanism Botany Chemistry Ethnopharmacology 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Director of EthnopharmacologyHeffter Research InstituteSanta FeUSA
  2. 2.Human Neuropsychopharmacology Research GroupSant Pau Institute of Biomedical Research (IIB-Sant Pau)BarcelonaSpain
  3. 3.Department of Pharmacology and TherapeuticsUniversitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB)BarcelonaSpain

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