OPEN Foundation

J. Bouso

Risk assessment of ayahuasca use in a religious context: self-reported risk factors and adverse effects

Abstract

Objective: Whether for spiritual, recreational, or potential therapeutic use, interest in ayahuasca has grown remarkably. Ayahuasca’s main active substances are N,N-dimethyltryptamine and certain monoamine oxidase inhibitor β-carbolines. Possible drug interactions are a major concern, and research is lacking in this area. The objective of this study was to evaluate the safety of ritual ayahuasca use regarding adverse effects and risk factors.

Methods: In this cross-sectional study, ayahuasca users from a religious institution answered an online questionnaire about its safety. Adverse effects, safety measures, and possible risk factors (psychiatric diagnosis and medications) were investigated.

Results: The most frequent adverse effects among the 614 participants were transient gastrointestinal effects (nausea and vomiting). Fifty participants self-reported a psychiatric diagnosis (depression and anxiety were the most prevalent), and these participants experienced adverse effects more frequently. Psychiatric medication use was reported by 31 participants. No indication of increased adverse effects due to drug-drug interactions was found.

Conclusion: A minority of participants reported being very negatively affected by persistent adverse effects. Psychiatric medication use while participating in ayahuasca rituals was not associated with increased adverse effects. For the most part, the institution’s practices seem sufficient to prevent exacerbated reactions. Future studies may focus on negatively affected users.

Durante, Í., Dos Santos, R. G., Bouso, J. C., & Hallak, J. E. (2021). Risk assessment of ayahuasca use in a religious context: self-reported risk factors and adverse effects. Revista brasileira de psiquiatria (Sao Paulo, Brazil : 1999), 43(4), 362–369. https://doi.org/10.1590/1516-4446-2020-0913

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

Abstract

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. https://doi.org/10.1097/JCP.0000000000001396

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

Abstract

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. https://doi.org/10.2147/RMHP.S300656

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Psychedelic Medicines in Major Depression: Progress and Future Challenges

Abstract

The volume of research on the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs has been increasing during the last decades. Partly because of the need of innovative treatments in psychiatry, several studies have assessed the safety and efficacy of drugs like psilocybin or ayahuasca for a wide range of mental disorders, including major depression. The first section of this chapter will offer an introduction to psychedelic research, including a brief historical overview and discussions about appropriate terminology. In the second section, the recently published clinical trials in which psychedelic drugs were administered to patients will be analysed in detail. Then, in the third section, the main neurobiological mechanisms of these drugs will be described, noting that while some of these mechanisms could be potentially associated with their therapeutic properties, they are commonly used as adjuvants in psychotherapeutic processes. The last section suggests future challenges for this groundbreaking field of research and therapy.

Bouso, J. C., Ona, G., Dos Santos, R. G., & Hallak, J. (2021). Psychedelic Medicines in Major Depression: Progress and Future Challenges. Advances in experimental medicine and biology, 1305, 515–533. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-33-6044-0_26

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Polypharmacology or “Pharmacological Promiscuity” In Psychedelic Research: What Are We Missing?

Abstract

Research with psychedelic drugs has mainly focused on isolated compounds. However, this approach is challenged by the “polypharmacology” paradigm. In this Viewpoint, we suggest that we may be missing something if we do not use the whole product in the case of ayahuasca or Psilocybe mushrooms. After describing how research on psychedelic drugs can be effectively combined with the polypharmacology paradigm, ethical issues are also briefly discussed.

Ona, G. S., Dos Santos, R. G., Hallak, J., & Bouso, J. C. (2020). Polypharmacology or “Pharmacological Promiscuity” In Psychedelic Research: What Are We Missing?. ACS chemical neuroscience, 11(20), 3191–3193. https://doi.org/10.1021/acschemneuro.0c00614

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Potential safety, benefits, and influence of the placebo effect in microdosing psychedelic drugs: A systematic review

Abstract

Microdosing psychedelic drugs-that is, taking sub-behavioral doses of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) or psilocybin-is a growing practice in Western societies. Taken mainly for creative or mood-enhancing purposes, thousands of users are increasingly being exposed to (micro)doses of psychedelic drugs. In this systematic review, we searched the available evidence from human studies, focusing our results in terms of three main axes: efficacy, safety, and the influence of the placebo effect in microdosing practices. While the available evidence has some strengths (e.g. large sample sizes, robust methodologies) there are also remarkable limitations (e.g. gender bias, heterogeneity of dosing schedules and drugs used). Highly contradictory results have been found, showing both the benefits and detriments of microdosing in terms of mood, creative processes, and energy, among other regards. This review provides a general overview of the methods and approaches used, which could be useful for improving future studies.

Ona, G., & Bouso, J. C. (2020). Potential safety, benefits, and influence of the placebo effect in microdosing psychedelic drugs: A systematic review. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 119, 194–203. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.09.035

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Serotonergic hallucinogens/psychedelics could be promising treatments for depressive and anxiety disorders in end-stage cancer.

Abstract

In a recent issue of the BMC Psychiatry, the evidence of effectiveness of treatments for psychiatric conditions in end-stage cancer patients was reviewed (Johnson, 2018). The review was comprehensive, and included traditional and non-traditional/alternative treatments, including herbal medicines and spirituality. However, evidence showing that classic or serotonergic hallucinogens/psychedelics such as psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) could be effective treatments for depressive and anxiety disorders in end-stage cancer was not included. In this commentary, we expand the information available on the original article by briefly reviewing data from recent placebo-controlled, double-blind, cross-over clinical trials showing evidence that administration of single (or few) doses of LSD and psilocybin was associated with rapid and sustained reductions in depressive and anxiety symptoms in patients with end-stage cancer and other life-threatening diseases (e.g., Bechterew’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Celiac disease). Since these substances seem to produce rapid and sustained therapeutic effects with single (or few) doses and well tolerated, large-scale, prospective, multi-site studies of end-stage cancer and classical/serotonergic hallucinogens/psychedelics should be performed to improve our understanding of the therapeutic potentials of these drugs and their use on clinical practice.
dos Santos, R. G., Bouso, J. C., & Hallak, J. E. (2019). Serotonergic hallucinogens/psychedelics could be promising treatments for depressive and anxiety disorders in end-stage cancer. BMC psychiatry19(1), 321., https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-019-2288-z
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Serotonergic hallucinogens and recognition of facial emotion expressions: a systematic review of the literature.

Abstract

BACKGROUND:
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.
METHODS:
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.
RESULTS:
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.
CONCLUSIONS:
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., https://doi.org/10.1177/2045125319845774
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Ayahuasca and Public Health: Health Status, Psychosocial Well-Being, Lifestyle, and Coping Strategies in a Large Sample of Ritual Ayahuasca Users

Assessing the health status of ayahuasca users has been challenging due to the limitations involved in randomized clinical trials and psychometric approaches. The main objective of this study is the implementation of an approach based on public health indicators. We developed a self-administered questionnaire that was administered to long-term ayahuasca users around Spain. The questionnaire was administrated face-to-face to participants (n = 380) in places where ayahuasca ceremonies were occurring. Public health indicators were compared with Spanish normative data, and intergroup analyses were conducted. Long-term ayahuasca use was associated with higher positive perception of health or with a healthy lifestyle, among other outcomes. Fifty-six percent of the sample reported reducing their use of prescription drugs due to ayahuasca use. Participants who used ayahuasca more than 100 times scored higher in personal values measures. The main conclusion of this study is that a respectful and controlled use of hallucinogenic/psychedelic drugs taken in communitarian settings can be incorporated into modern society with benefits for public health. This new approach, based on the use of health indicators that were not used in previous ayahuasca studies, offers relevant information about the impact of long-term exposure to ayahuasca on public health.

Ona, G., Kohek, M., Massaguer, T., Gomariz, A., Jiménez, D. F., Dos Santos, R. G., … & Bouso, J. C. (2019). Ayahuasca and Public Health: Health Status, Psychosocial Well-Being, Lifestyle, and Coping Strategies in a Large Sample of Ritual Ayahuasca Users. Journal of psychoactive drugs, 1-11., 10.1080/02791072.2019.1567961
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Psychedelics and Personality.

Abstract

In the past decade, an increasing number of clinical trials are reporting evidence that psychedelics or serotonergic hallucinogens (such as lysergic acid diethylamide, psilocybin, and ayahuasca/dimethyltryptamine) could be effective in the treatment of mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders. The mechanisms responsible for these effects are not fully understood but seem to involve changes in bran dynamics in areas rich in serotonergic 5-HT2A receptors and in personality. In the present text, we present a brief and critical overview of the current research in this field, pointing out both promises and limitations of these studies.
Aixalà, M., dos Santos, R. G., Hallak, J. E., & Bouso, J. C. (2018). Psychedelics and Personality., https://doi.org/10.1021/acschemneuro.8b00237
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