Ayahuasca shows 'promise' in treating suicidal thoughts, researchers say

Researchers say further research is needed, though.

Ayahuasca shows 'promise' in treating suicidal thoughts, researchers say

SAN FRANCISCO, PUCALLPA, UCAYALI, PERU — 2016/11/12: Roger Lopez and his mother, Mama Ida, Shamans of a Shipibo community in the Amazon jungle, conduct a session of Ayahuasca.

Photo credit: Fotoholica Press / Getty
  • Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew that's been used by Amazonian tribes for centuries.
  • Recent research suggests that ayahuasca might help reduce depression. The new study examined whether those effects might extend to suicidality.
  • The results were mixed, but it seems ayahuasca shows some potential as a suicide intervention.


The psychedelic brew ayahuasca might show promise in the treatment of suicidality, the results of a new study suggest.

Ayahuasca — commonly made from the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub and stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine — has been used for centuries by Amazonian tribes as a spiritual medicine. It can cause intense, hours-long psychedelic experiences that have been described in countless ways, from life-changing to psychologically-distressing. In recent years, "ayahuasca retreats" in countries such as Peru and Brazil have become popular among Westerners seeking spiritual healing.

More recently, scientists have begun exploring the potential therapeutic benefits of ayahuasca in the clinical setting, a development that comes as governments are relaxing regulations on experiments involving psychedelic drugs, like ketamine and psilocybin.

In 2018, for instance, a team of psychologists conducted the first randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial of ayahuasca. The results, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, indicated that ayahuasca could, in fact, be effective in alleviating hard-to-treat depression.

In the new study, published in Frontiers in Pharmacology on November 19, the researchers wanted to test whether the drug had similar effects on reducing suicidality — one's tendency to think about, show risk of, or plan suicide.

"Suicide is one of the leading causes of death, accounting for nearly 1,000,000 deaths each year," study author Richard Zeifman, a Ph.D. student in Clinical Psychology at Ryerson University, told PsyPost. Zeifman added:

"Current interventions for suicidality have important limitations, which means there is a need for developing and identifying novel interventions for suicidality. Given this need, as well as research indicating that ayahuasca shows promise as an intervention for various mental health concerns (e.g., depression), we were interested in exploring whether the positive therapeutic effects of ayahuasca extended to suicidality."

The team recruited 29 participants — all of whom had major depressive disorder (MDD) and had never tried psychedelic drugs — to ingest either ayahuasca or a placebo in a dimly lit room as they listened to a predetermined playlist of music. Then, suicidality among the participants was measured by a psychiatrist for a week after the ayahuasca session.

The results were mixed. Compared to the placebo group, the participants who took ayahuasca showed less suicidality at all points during the week after the session. However, the differences weren't quite strong enough to be statistically significant. One explanation for the ambiguous results, besides the possibility that ayahuasca might not reduce suicidality, is that the team's statistical analysis wasn't able to detect significant effects — possibly because the sample size was too small.

In any case, the researchers said the findings suggest that ayahuasca shows "promise as a fast-acting and innovative intervention for suicidality."

"Furthermore, within the ayahuasca group, we found large effect sizes for decreases in suicidality at all time points," the researchers wrote. "These findings are in line with past research on the impact of psilocybin on suicidality and longitudinal research indicating that lifetime use of psychedelics is associated with reduced levels of suicidality and decreased risk of becoming suicidal."

The authors stressed that their results are preliminary, and that further research is needed before ayahuasca can be considered as a standardized suicide intervention.

It's worth noting the potential dangers of ayahuasca: Although anecdotal evidence suggests that ayahuasca might help people such as veterans reduce depression and symptoms of PTSD, there have also been cases of people committing suicide or experiencing mental health problems after taking ayahuasca.

A 'thirst for wholeness'

But it's possible these problems stem from people using the drug irresponsibly, as Rev. Dr. Jessica Rochester, founder of Céu do Montreal, a Canadian church that uses ayahuasca in spiritual ceremonies, told the Montreal Gazette.

"What has been happening is something called ayahuasca tourism. Unfortunately, with the world of the internet and people posting things saying, 'I went here once and healed my whole life,' (ayahuasca) has been sensationalized."

"On the other side, there have been tragic accidents where people either met death or caused harm. Our condolences go out to the individuals, families and friends for their losses, which would have been preventable if people would have taken simple precautions."

Rochester said ayahuasca improved her life.

"A lot of my experiences contributed to my understanding of myself, and of reality," she said. "I was simply following what my heart called me into. I can't say I was looking for anything in particular, but I like what Carl Jung wrote to Bill Wilson about a 'thirst for wholeness.'

"It's what's driving Western civilization, and is the cornerstone of a lot of my early academic work and my work as a health and wellness counsellor, which I have been for years."

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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