OPEN Foundation

G. Rossi

Effects of Ayahuasca on the Recognition of Facial Expressions of Emotions in Naive Healthy Volunteers: A Pilot, Proof-of-Concept, Randomized Controlled Trial


Background: The recognition of emotions in facial expressions (REFE) is a core aspect of social cognition. Previous studies with the serotonergic hallucinogens lysergic acid diethylamide and psilocybin showed that these drugs reduced the recognition of negative (fear) faces in healthy volunteers. This trial assessed the acute and prolonged effects of a single dose of ayahuasca on the REFE.

Methods: Twenty-two healthy volunteers participated in a pilot, proof-of-concept, randomized trial. Study variables included a REFE task performed before and 4 hours after drug intake, subjective effects (self-reports/observer impressions), tolerability measures (cardiovascular measures, self-reports), and brain-derived neurotrophic factor plasma levels. The REFE task was applied again 1, 7, 14, and 21 days and 3 months after drug intake. Stability of ayahuasca alkaloids during the study was also assessed (room temperature, 18 months).

Findings: Compared with placebo, ayahuasca did not modify the REFE. No significant effects were observed on cardiovascular measures and brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels. Volunteers reported visual effects, tranquility/relaxation, and well-being, with few reports of transient anxiety/confusion. Ayahuasca was well tolerated, producing mainly nausea, gastrointestinal discomfort, and vomiting. A significant time-dependent deterioration of alkaloids was observed, especially for dimethyltryptamine.

Conclusions: Absence of significant effects on the REFE task could be due to lack of effects of ayahuasca (at the doses used), alkaloid degradation, learning effects, and the high educational level of the sample. Further trials with different samples are needed to better understand the effects of ayahuasca and other serotonergic hallucinogens on the REFE. Future trials should improve methods to guarantee the stability of ayahuasca alkaloids.

Rocha, J. M., Rossi, G. N., de Lima Osório, F., Bouso, J. C., de Oliveira Silveira, G., Yonamine, M., Campos, A. C., Bertozi, G., Cecílio Hallak, J. E., & Dos Santos, R. G. (2021). Effects of Ayahuasca on the Recognition of Facial Expressions of Emotions in Naive Healthy Volunteers: A Pilot, Proof-of-Concept, Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of clinical psychopharmacology, 41(3), 267–274.

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The Use of Classic Hallucinogens/Psychedelics in a Therapeutic Context: Healthcare Policy Opportunities and Challenges


Psychedelics or serotonergic hallucinogens are a group of substances that share the agonism of serotonergic 5-HT2A receptors as their main mechanism of action. Its main effects include changes in perception, cognitive process, and mood. Despite being used for centuries by different cultures in ritual contexts, these substances have currently aroused the interest of science and industry for their promising antidepressant, anxiolytic, and anti-addictive effects. Considering this evidence, this article aims to explore some of the possible health policy challenges to integrate these therapeutic tools into broad and heterogeneous health systems. As a main benefit, these substances produce rapid and enduring effects with the administration of single or few doses, which could lead to new treatment possibilities for patients with severe mental disorders resistant to the usual medications. The main challenge is associated with the fact that these substances remain scheduled in most countries and are associated with social stigma related to their recreational use (especially LSD and psilocybin). This situation makes it exceedingly difficult to conduct clinical trials, although international conventions allow such research. Ethically, this could be interpreted as a violation of human rights since thousands of people are prevented from having access to possible benefits. Interestingly, ritual ayahuasca use is more acceptable to the public than the use of psilocybin-containing mushrooms or LSD. The controlled, clinical use of LSD and psilocybin seems to be less criticized and is being explored by the industry. Rigorous scientific evidence coupled with industrial interests (LSD and psilocybin), together with respect for traditional uses (ayahuasca) and international conventions, seems to be the best way for these drugs to be integrated into health systems in the next years. Which highlights the need for an urgent dialogue between science, health system, society, and politics.

Dos Santos, R. G., Bouso, J. C., Rocha, J. M., Rossi, G. N., & Hallak, J. E. (2021). The Use of Classic Hallucinogens/Psychedelics in a Therapeutic Context: Healthcare Policy Opportunities and Challenges. Risk management and healthcare policy, 14, 901–910.

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Combining Ketamine, Brain Stimulation (rTMS) and Mindfulness Therapy (TIMBER) for Opioid Addiction


Opioid addiction in the United States currently presents a national crisis despite availability of different treatments. Prior findings suggest that both repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and subanesthetic dose of ketamine are efficacious in patients with opioid use disorders (OUD) when administered in isolation. However, their therapeutic value may be undermined by varying clinical responses that tend to dissipate with treatment cessation. There has been no study to date that has used a combination of both for OUD, and there are still many unanswered questions with respect to both. TIMBER (Trauma Interventions using Mindfulness Based Extinction and Reconsolidation of memories) therapy attempts to alter the expression of emotionally charged memories such as traumatic memories, and has been successfully tried in chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and in combination with memory-altering pharmacotherapy like ketamine infusion. By a combination of extinction and reconsolidation of memory approaches, TIMBER works to not over-flood and/or retraumatize as is seen in other treatment approaches. TIMBER involves a balanced combination of both the memory extinction and memory reconsolidation approaches (rather than extinction-only approaches) which explains its superior efficacy in PTSD and benefit in substance use disorders.

Pradhan, B., & Rossi, G. (2020). Combining Ketamine, Brain Stimulation (rTMS) and Mindfulness Therapy (TIMBER) for Opioid Addiction. Cureus, 12(11), e11798.

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Serotonergic hallucinogens and recognition of facial emotion expressions: a systematic review of the literature.


Recognition of emotions in facial expressions (REFE) is a key aspect of social cognition. Anxiety and mood disorders are associated with deficits in REFE, and anxiolytics and antidepressants reverse these deficits. Recent studies have shown that serotonergic hallucinogens (i.e. ayahuasca, dimethyltryptamine, psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide [LSD], and mescaline) have anxiolytic and antidepressant properties, but their effects on REFE are not well understood. The purpose of the study was to conduct a systematic review analyzing the effects of serotonergic hallucinogens on REFE in humans.
Studies published in the PubMed, PsycINFO, and Web of Science databases until 19 October 2018 which analyzed the effects of serotonergic hallucinogens on REFE in humans were included.
Of the 62 studies identified, 8 studies were included. Included studies involved the administration of a single or a few doses of LSD or psilocybin, and most trials were randomized and controlled with placebo. LSD and psilocybin reduced the recognition of negative emotions in most studies and modulated amygdala activity to these stimuli, which was correlated with antidepressive effects in patients. Both drugs were well tolerated.
Serotonergic hallucinogens reduced the recognition of negative emotions by modulating amygdala activity. Despite the small sample sizes, results suggest that serotonergic hallucinogens show promising beneficial effects on deficits in REFE.
Rocha, J. M., Osório, F. L., Crippa, J. A. S., Bouso, J. C., Rossi, G. N., Hallak, J. E., & dos Santos, R. G. (2019). Serotonergic hallucinogens and recognition of facial emotion expressions: a systematic review of the literature. Therapeutic advances in psychopharmacology9, 2045125319845774.,
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Possible Interactions Between 5-HT2A Receptors and the Endocannabinoid System in Humans: Preliminary Evidence of Interactive Effects of Ayahuasca and Endocannabinoids in a Healthy Human Subject


To the Editors

Ayahuasca is an ethnobotanical hallucinogenic preparation traditionally used for ritual and therapeutic purposes in the Northwestern Amazon Basin. It is prepared by the decoction of the bark of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi with the leaves of the shrub Psychotria viridisBanisteriopsis caapi contains the β-carbolines harmine, tetrahydroharmine, and harmaline, which are reversible inhibitors of monoamine oxidase type A (MAO-A), whereas P. viridis contains N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), an agonist at 5-HT1A/2A/2C receptors. Pure DMT is not active orally because it is metabolized by MAO-A, but the β-carbolines in ayahuasca inhibit peripheral MAO-A and allow DMT to reach the brain. The β-carbolines also reach the systemic circulation in humans, but their effects are poorly characterized.

A recent randomized controlled trial (RCT) with 29 patients with treatment-resistant depression showed that, compared with placebo, a single ayahuasca dose induced significant antidepressant effects 7 days after drug intake. The mechanisms behind these effects are not clear but seem to involve agonism at cortical 5-HT2A receptors in brain areas related to emotional processing. 5-HT2A receptor activation also leads to the formation and release of endocannabinoids (ECs), and both the production and release of the EC 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) are induced by 5-HT2A agonists. Considering that the 5-HT2Areceptor and the EC system (ECS) are coexpressed in brain regions related to emotional processing, they could be involved in the antidepressive effect of ayahuasca. To test the possible interaction between both systems, we administered in an open-label design a single oral ayahuasca dose (1 mL/kg) to a healthy 34-year-old man and assessed subjective effects (Visual Analog Mood Scale [VAMS], Bodily Symptoms Scale, Beck Anxiety Inventory [BAI]), tolerability (blood pressure and heart rate, self-report), and EC plasma levels (anandamide [AEA], 2-AG) at several time points: VAMS, Bodily Symptoms Scale, blood pressure, and heart rate at baseline and 40, 90, 120, 150, and 240 minutes after drug intake; BAI–baseline, 240 minutes after drug intake; AEA, 2-AG (blood samples) at baseline and 90 and 240 minutes after drug intake. Analysis of the ayahuasca sample using gas chromatography with nitrogen-phosphorus detection showed the following alkaloid content (in mg/mL): 0.702 DMT, 1.748 harmine, 0.780 tetrahydroharmine, and 0.039 harmaline. Analysis of plasma ECs was performed using ultrahigh-performance liquid chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry. Detailed information on subjective measures and ayahuasca and EC analyses is described in the Supplemental Digital Content,

The volunteer was not taking any medication and was requested to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, and caffeinated drinks 12 hours before ayahuasca intake. He arrived in the laboratory at 7:00 AM under fasting conditions, and urinalysis for illicit drug use was performed before ayahuasca intake (the test measured cannabis and cocaine and was negative for both drugs). Afterward, a cannula was introduced in his arm for collecting blood samples. Ayahuasca was administered at approximately 8:00 AM, and the experimental session lasted 5 hours. The experimental session consisted in the administration of the drug followed by application of the scales and assessment of tolerability measures at the aforementioned time points. During measurements, the volunteer remained seated in a comfortable reclining chair in a quiet dimly lit room. There was no psychological intervention before, during, or after the session.The volunteer remained in the laboratory under observation to see if the effects had subsided and was discharged around 6 hours after drug intake, which is the approximate duration of the psychoactive effects of ayahuasca.

dos Santos, R. G., Crippa, J. A., de Lima Osório, F., Rocha, J. M., Rossi, G. N., Marchioni, C., … & Hallak, J. E. C. (2018). Possible Interactions Between 5-HT2A Receptors and the Endocannabinoid System in Humans: Preliminary Evidence of Interactive Effects of Ayahuasca and Endocannabinoids in a Healthy Human Subject. Journal of clinical psychopharmacology38(6), 644-646., 10.1097/JCP.0000000000000973
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