OPEN Foundation

J. Hallak

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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Hallucinogenic/psychedelic 5HT2A receptor agonists as rapid antidepressant therapeutics: Evidence and mechanisms of action

Abstract

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is among the most prevalent mental health disorders worldwide, and it is associated with a reduced quality of life and enormous costs to health care systems. Available drug treatments show low-to-moderate response in most patients, with almost a third of patients being non-responders (treatment-resistant). Furthermore, most currently available medications need several weeks to achieve therapeutic effects, and the long-term use of these drugs is often associated with significant unwanted side effects and resultant reductions in treatment compliance. Therefore, more effective, safer, and faster-acting antidepressants with enduring effects are needed. Together with ketamine, psychedelics (or classic or serotoninergic hallucinogens) such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin, and ayahuasca are among the few compounds with recent human evidence of fast-acting antidepressant effects. Several studies in the 1950s to 1970s reported antidepressive and anxiolytic effects of these drugs, which are being confirmed by modern trials (LSD, one trial; psilocybin, five trials; ayahuasca, two trials). The effects of these drugs appear to be produced primarily by their agonism at serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, 5-HT) receptors, especially the 5-HT2A receptor. Considering the overall burden of MDD and the necessity of new therapeutic options, the promising (but currently limited) evidence of safety and efficacy of psychedelics has encouraged the scientific community to explore more fully their beneficial effects in MDD.

Dos Santos, R. G., Hallak, J. E., Baker, G., & Dursun, S. (2021). Hallucinogenic/psychedelic 5HT2A receptor agonists as rapid antidepressant therapeutics: Evidence and mechanisms of action. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 35(4), 453–458. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881120986422

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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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Rapid and sustained decreases in suicidality following a single dose of ayahuasca among individuals with recurrent major depressive disorder: results from an open-label trial

Abstract

Rationale: Suicidality is a major public health concern with limited treatment options. Accordingly, there is a need for innovative interventions for suicidality. Preliminary evidence indicates that treatment with the psychedelic ayahuasca may lead to decreases in depressive symptoms among individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD). However, there remains limited understanding of whether ayahuasca also leads to reductions in suicidality.

Objective: To examine the acute and post-acute effect of ayahuasca on suicidality among individuals with MDD.

Methods: We conducted a secondary analysis of an open-label trial in which individuals with recurrent MDD received a single dose of ayahuasca (N = 17). Suicidality was assessed at baseline; during the intervention; and 1, 7, 14, and 21 days after the intervention.

Results: Among individuals with suicidality at baseline (n = 15), there were significant acute (i.e., 40, 80, 140, and 180 min after administration) and post-acute (1, 7, 14, and 21 days after administration) decreases in suicidality following administration of ayahuasca. Post-acute effect sizes for decreases in suicidality were large (Hedges’ g = 1.31-1.75), with the largest effect size 21 days after the intervention (g = 1.75).

Conclusions: When administered in the appropriate context, ayahuasca may lead to rapid and sustained reductions in suicidality among individuals with MDD. Randomized, double-blind studies with larger sample sizes are needed to confirm this early finding.

Zeifman, R. J., Singhal, N., Dos Santos, R. G., Sanches, R. F., de Lima Osório, F., Hallak, J., & Weissman, C. R. (2021). Rapid and sustained decreases in suicidality following a single dose of ayahuasca among individuals with recurrent major depressive disorder: results from an open-label trial. Psychopharmacology, 238(2), 453–459. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-020-05692-9

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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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Stability Evaluation of DMT and Harmala Alkaloids in Ayahuasca Tea Samples

Abstract

Ayahuasca tea is a hallucinogenic beverage used for religious purposes in Brazil and many other countries that has therapeutic potential in the treatment of some mental health disorders. In the context of psychedelic research, quantification of the tea’s main alkaloids prior to its administration in animal or human studies is essential. For this reason, this study aims to provide information regarding the stability of the main ayahuasca alkaloids (dimethyltryptamine, DMT; harmine, HRM; tetrahydroharmine, THH; harmaline, HRL) in three different conditions: (1) A year stored in a refrigerator either in plastic or glass containers, (2) seven days at 37 °C to reproduce usual mail transportation, and (3) after three freeze-thaw cycles. Samples were quantified after a dilute-and-shoot procedure using liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (LC-ESI-MS/MS). There was no significant degradation of DMT concentration over time in all tested conditions. Harmala alkaloids (THH, HRL, and HRM) showed important variations after long-term and high-temperature storages. Although DMT has proven to be stable in all studied conditions, the harmala alkaloids revealed intense degradation and even concentration increment. This may be caused by degradation, alkaloid inter-conversion, and leaching from tea precipitate material. Therefore, ayahuasca quantification before administration in controlled sets is mandatory.

de Oliveira Silveira, G., Guimarães Dos Santos, R., Rebello Lourenço, F., Novak Rossi, G., Hallak, J., & Yonamine, M. (2020). Stability Evaluation of DMT and Harmala Alkaloids in Ayahuasca Tea Samples. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 25(9), 2072. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules25092072

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Therapeutic use of serotoninergic hallucinogens: A review of the evidence and of the biological and psychological mechanisms.

Abstract

Serotoninergic hallucinogens include drugs such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and psilocybin. Recent trials with single/few doses of these compounds show that they induce rapid and sustained antidepressive, anxiolytic, and antiaddictive effects. These effects are also observed in religious groups using the DMT-containing brew ayahuasca. The agonist action of these substances on 5-HT2A receptors expressed in frontal and limbic areas increase glutamatergic transmission and neuroplasticity. These neurochemical effects are associated with acute alterations on self-perception and increases in introspection and positive mood, and with subacute and long-term decreases in psychiatric symptoms, increases in some personality traits such as openness, improvements in emotional processing, and increases in empathy. These are preliminary but promising results that should be further explored in controlled trials with larger sample sizes, especially considering that these compounds could be beneficial in the treatment of treatment-resistant psychiatric disorders.
dos Santos, R. G., & Hallak, J. E. C. (2019). Therapeutic use of serotoninergic hallucinogens: a review of the evidence and of the biological and psychological mechanisms. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.12.001
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The Impact of Ayahuasca on Suicidality: Results From a Randomized Controlled Trial.

Abstract

Suicide is a major public health problem. Given increasing suicide rates and limitations surrounding current interventions, there is an urgent need for innovative interventions for suicidality. Although ayahuasca has been shown to target mental health concerns associated with suicidality (i.e., depression and hopelessness), research has not yet explored the impact of ayahuasca on suicidality. Therefore, we conducted secondary analyses of a randomized placebo-controlled trial in which individuals with treatment-resistant depression were administered one dose of ayahuasca (n = 14) or placebo (n = 15). Suicidality was assessed by a trained psychiatrist at baseline, as well as 1 day, 2 days, and 7 days after the intervention. A fixed-effects linear mixed model, as well as between and within-groups Cohen’s d effect sizes were used to examine changes in suicidality. Controlling for baseline suicidality, we found a significant effect for time (p < .05). The effect of the intervention (i.e., ayahuasca vs. placebo) trended toward significance (p = .088). At all time points, we found medium between-group effect sizes (i.e., ayahuasca vs. placebo; day 1 Cohen’s d = 0.58; day 2 d = 0.56; day 7 d = 0.67), as well as large within-group (ayahuasca; day 1 Cohen’s d = 1.33; day 2 d = 1.42; day 7 d = 1.19) effect sizes, for decreases in suicidality. Conclusions: This research is the first to explore the impact of ayahuasca on suicidality. The findings suggest that ayahuasca may show potential as an intervention for suicidality. We highlight important limitations of the study, potential mechanisms, and future directions for research on ayahuasca as an intervention for suicidality. Clinical Trial Registration: www.ClinicalTrials.gov, identifier NCT02914769.

Zeifman, R., Palhano-Fontes, F., Hallak, J., Nunes, E. A., Maia-de-Oliveira, J. P., & de Araujo, D. B. (2019). The Impact of Ayahuasca on Suicidality: Results From a Randomized Controlled Trial. Frontiers in Pharmacology10, 1325.
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