A recent, early-stage study in the field of psychedelic research asked a new question: it considered how a psychedelic might impact the expression of human DNA. While the study had its limitations, it shows promising results for a plant medicine that has been used for at least 1,000 years by Indigenous peoples living in the Amazon basin.
While in some traditions, ayahuasca was reserved for shamans and curanderos, its popularity among North Americans and Europeans has increased significantly in the last two decades, and with more and more Westerners willing to hand over cash in their quest for healing, ayahuasca tourism has become a multi-million dollar industry.
An entheogenic brew typically made using the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub, ayahuasca contains the active compound N-N-Dimethyltryptamine (more commonly known as DMT) and is known to induce intense visions and mystical experiences.
First Epigenetic Study On A Psychedelic
Dr. Simon Ruffell of Kings College London led the observational study with fellow researchers Nige Netzband and WaiFung Tsang. The team looked at the use of ayahuasca by 63 mostly white participants who attended a traditional Shipibo retreat, and its effects on their mental health. It was conducted at a purpose-built research center operated by the Ayahuasca Foundation in Iquitos, Peru, which works in partnership with the Allpahuayo-Mishana community on a national reserve.
The research team collected inventory surveys before and after participants’ retreats, and then again six months later to look primarily at depression, anxiety, and self-compassion, as well as mindfulness, general well-being, the perception of traumatic memories, and other secondary measures. They also collected saliva samples.
“We collected saliva samples in order to assess potential changes in gene expression—a field called epigenetics,” says Ruffell. His team assessed three genes related to trauma and neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to make new connections.
‘What Surprised Us? Basically Nothing’
Ruffell says based on the existing body of research on ayahuasca and mental health outcomes, he wasn’t surprised to learn that participants showed decreases in depression and anxiety and improvements in mindfulness, self-compassion, and general well-being. In addition, participants were found to perceive memories in a less negative way.
“We also found that, the greater degree their mystical experience, the greater their decrease in depression, which was in line with other psychedelic research,” he added. The results of the six-month follow-up showed that the impact ayahuasca had on participants’ depression was lasting, with some even continuing to experience a decrease in their symptoms long after the retreat had ended.
Ayahuasca Foundation director Carlos Tanner, who founded its Riosbo research centre in 2017 and has witnessed thousands of ceremonies, says while he expected there to be improvements in participants’ mental health, he was surprised by the follow-up.
“I thought, like anyone who is familiar with pharmaceutical studies might think, that when the treatment stopped, there would be some return of symptoms,” he says. “That was the most jaw-dropping to me, because it suggests that in a singular treatment event—the retreat itself—there was a lasting effect that continued without treatment.”
Saliva Samples Show a Change In Gene Expression, But Sample Size Is Small
“This was the first-ever study to look at any psychedelic and epigenetics, and that in itself is exciting,” says Ruffell, though he’s quick to caveat that statement with a note about the study’s small sample size. While he says there was a “statistically significant change” in the expression of the gene SIGMAR1, which is thought to be involved in how traumatic memories are stored, it’s too early to generalize the results.
“We can’t draw any conclusions, but what it does suggest is that ayahuasca may well be having some kind of effect on the genetic level,” he says, noting the group is awaiting additional funding to continue the study and increase the sample size.
Ruffell, a psychiatric doctor who has worked in both clinical settings and ceremonial ones, admits that one of the problems with this research is that there is a clear self-selection bias.
“It takes a certain kind of person to go into the jungle and drink ayahuasca,” he says. “Many would feel more reassured in a hospital setting or in a clinical trial.”