Written by Alex K. Gearin (PhD, Anthropology)
I know what you are thinking: I must be running low on brain cells (and ayahuasca!) to think that growing new brain cells is possibly not a good thing. Brain cells are the building blocks of the brain, right? It is easy to imagine these cells being like glowing sacred batteries that can germinate into minuscule universes to power the mind of a genius. And, maybe this is not too far from the truth.
Image from Prof. Jordi Riba’s research on ayahuasca neurogenesis. Source: bialabate.net
There are some surprising facts that can help us better understand the research about ayahuasca molecules growing new brain cells. The surprising facts conjure up images not only of sacred mind-expanding batteries but also the netherworld of cognitive impairment.
“The growth of new neurons in the brain, otherwise known as neurogenesis, can lead to improvements and impairments in brain functioning”
According to research conducted at Columbia University Medical School, the growth of new neurons in the brain, otherwise known as “neurogenesis,” can lead to both improvements and impairments in brain functioning.1 Scientists discovered that some memory types, such as spatial memory, were boosted when neuron growth was interrupted in the brain in the area where ayahuasca grows brain cells. This research is very interesting for neuroscientists because most research about neurogenesis has indicated that brain cell growth creates positive changes to cognition, learning abilities, and memory.2
So, is it actually good news that ayahuasca grows brain cells? If we weigh the positive and negative scientific results, the answer seems to be a reasonably solid yes (see references 1,2).
Yet, ayahuasca is not unique in its ability to grow new brain cells. Scientists have found that neuron growth can be increased in a number of ways, including by simply learning new things and by doing physical exercise. They have also discovered that neurogenesis could be increased by drugs such as ketamine and the antidepressant medication Prozac.3
A variety of medications have been shown to increase neurogenesis in the brain, including mood stabilizers like lithium and, you’d never guess it, even Viagra! The headlines “Viagra Grows Brain Cells” doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Ayahuasca Grows Brain Cells”. But don’t worry. I am not here to criticize ayahuasca. In fact, it would be difficult for me to try to do this from a scientific perspective.
In the past two decades, increasing research has emerged suggesting that there are therapeutic benefits to using ayahuasca to treat common mental health issues, such as depression, addictions, and post-traumatic stress disorder.4 There also is research demonstrating how drinking ayahuasca may boost creative thinking and mindfulness capabilities.5
If we take a look at a very different form of science, the science of the “social,” we find interesting research about the different communities around the world that use ayahuasca.6 I think this research is important for a number of reasons; not least, because there can certainly be a link between the health of an individual and the health of a community.
We might be some years away from seeing the headlines, “Community Grows Brain Cells.” But, regardless of how good a psychiatric medicine is, if the patient is stuck in a shitty, horrible social context, it certainly makes it harder for him or her to thrive and flourish as a healthy and happy person.
“Adult neurogenesis is simply one piece of the therapeutic puzzle that ayahuasca arranges.”
In a powerful overview of the neurobiological mechanism of ayahuasca, Professor Luís Fernando Tófoli explains how most or all chemicals in ayahuasca may each have individual therapeutic effects through different mechanisms in the brain. This overall “net effect”, or what was first termed the “entourage effect,” may mean that the chemicals in the ayahuasca brew combine to produce a therapeutic effect that is beyond the conceptions most scientists have about medicines. The “cocktail” of medicinal molecules in the ayahuasca plants may work together in strange and powerful ways to produce healing. Adult neurogenesis is simply one piece of the therapeutic puzzle that ayahuasca arranges.
To learn more about this cutting-edge research, check out Professor Luís Fernando Tófoli teachings at the online ayahuasca learning hub, kahpi. In the Medicine & Brain stream, he also explores the relationship between the psychology, spirituality, culture and neuroscience of ayahuasca.
- Susan Conova 2007. Neurogenesis: A Research Paradox. The Newsletter of Columbia University Medical Center 6(1). Accessed October. 2016 http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/publications/in-vivo/april_may_2007/ ↩
- Helem Scharfman & Rene Hen 2007. Is More Neurogenesis Always Better? Science 315(5810)336-338 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2041961/ ↩
- Helem Scharfman & Rene Hen 2007. Is More Neurogenesis Always Better? Science 315(5810)336-338https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2041961/table/T1/ ↩
- Labate & Cavnar (ed.) 2014. The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca. Springer ; Also see, ICEERS, Ayahuasca, Scientific Information http://www.iceers.org/science-interest-ayahuasca.php#.WBMGDJN96V4 ↩
- Kuypers et al 2016. Ayahuasca enhances creative divergent thinking while decreasing conventional convergent thinking. Psychopharmacology 233(18):3395-403 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27435062 ; Soler et al 2016. Exploring the therapeutic potential of Ayahuasca: acute intake increases mindfulness-related capacities. Psychopharmacology 233(5):823-9 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26612618 ↩
- Labate et al (ed.) 2017. The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Controversies and Reinventions. London: Routledge ↩