Behind Closed Eyes: An Ayahuasca Experience

in Article
October 7th, 2011

Ayahuasca is found to produce life-changing visions but can it also produce life-changing cures?

Ayahuasca is found to produce life-changing visions but can it also produce life-changing cures?

“As I closed my eyes, images – if they can be called such – began racing at an ever-increasing speed before me. Swirls of colors, shapes, forms, textures and sounds simply overpowered me to the point where I became immobile. Like many others before me, no doubt, I became somewhat frightened. What had I let myself in for? When I opened my eyes, the phantasmagoria of forms vanished, and I saw myself in the same room with the others”

Donald M. Topping’s description is very similar to the accounts many others have given. He brought up many questions on the vividness of visions produced after his very first ingestion of the hallucinogenic brew Ayahausca.  What underlying brain mechanisms allow potentially healing, uplifting and fearful experiences to occur behind closed eyelids?  That is what Draulio B. de Araujo and others sought out to find.

Ayahausca is a thick, brown potion served orally as a tea decoction made of a bush (Psychotria viridis), which is a rich source of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and a liana (Banisteriopsis caapi) containing beta-carbolines (such as harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine).  The mixture of these two plants allows for the inhibition, by the beta-carbolines, of monoamine oxidase (MAO) ultimately causing DMT to be psychoactive after ingested.  Naturally, when DMT is orally ingested by itself, it is inactivated by MAO.  Soon after ingestion, the levels of 5-HT rise to incredible amounts.  The unnatural changes in brain chemicals as a result of Ayahuasca are believed to cause the powerful visual hallucinations that have been continuously reported.

Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Arauji et. al., the Brain Institute at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte took in ten participates whom were all frequent Ayahuasca users and photographed their brains before and after an ingestion of 120-200 mL of Ayahuasca to see where activation in the brain takes place.  A closed-eyes imagery task was completed for both stages.  The imagery task included three conditions: viewing natural images (people, animals, or trees), mentally generating the previously seen images, and then viewing a scrambled version of the image presented in the first condition.  The scrambled image served as a baseline.  Psychiatric scales were also applied at intervals of 0, 40, 80, and 200 min after ingestion to detect symptoms of psychosis and mania.

Results would demonstrate an overall increase in the psychiatric scales after Ayahuasca intake, with a significant increase at 40 and 80 min.  The mean time for DMT in the Ayahuasca mixture to reach its peak concentration, Tmax, is 90-120 minutes.  This would also explain why an Ayahuasca experience can last for several hours.  Results from the fMRI data showed significant activity in the occipital, temporal, and frontal cortical areas which are involved with vision, memory, and intention, respectively.

BOLD responses before and after Ayahuasca intake

BOLD responses before and after Ayahuasca intake

Moreover, the activity in the occipital areas (BA17, BA19, and BA7) was significant because the BOLD signal amplitude after intake increased during the imagery condition, but not during the natural image condition. It is also worth mentioning that the increased activity of the BA17 location in the occipital region, which works with the cuneus and lingual gyrus, corresponds to the peripheral visual field.  This area may play a major role in why post-Ayahausca imagery is so intense even behind closed eyelids.  Ayahuasca also induced activity in temporal areas in the parahippocampal cortex (BA30) and the retrosplenial cortex (BA37) during the imagery condition, which are areas that deal with the retrieval of episodic memories and the processing of contextual associations.  In addition, frontopolar cortex (BA10) activity was also increased during the imagery condition perhaps because subjects intentionally create the images in their minds and interestingly enough, was the only area to produce a positive BOLD signal during the imagery condition before the intake and then potentiated after intake.

In the Amazon jungle, Kira Salak, a writer for National Geographic, photographs Shamans during an ayahuasca ceremony in Peru.

In the Amazon jungle, Kira Salak, a writer for National Geographic, photographs Shamans during an ayahuasca ceremony in Peru.

While my interest continues to grow about this psychotropic plant tea, I can rest assured that I know how my primary visual cortex activity can be intensified and like others be able to experience another dimension of reality behind closed eyes.  Besides its original use in select South American religious ceremonies, Ayahuasca can be used for therapy. People like Donald M. Topping, after going through several sessions of Ayahuasca ingestion, left his oncologist’s office one day with his cancer activity indicator below normal.  Many more have left with their symptoms of depression and anxiety miraculously gone, which can also be seen in another study by R.G. Santos et. al. where they suggest Ayahuasca can produce beneficial effects on mood and anxiety.  Even after its many centuries of use there is still much to be learned about the neural basis of Ayahuasca’s potent psychological effects. Unraveling the mystery of Ayahuasca could potentially be utilized in the future as a readily available alternative medicine.

Seeing with the eyes shut: Neural basis of enhanced imagery following ayahuasca ingestion
– Human Brain Mapping

Effects of ayahuasca on psychometric measures of anxiety, panic-like and hopelessness in Santo Daime members – Journal of Ethnopharmacology

Human Pharmacology of Ayahuasca: Subjective and
Cardiovascular Effects, Monoamine Metabolite Excretion, and

Human Pharmacology of Ayahuasca: Subjective and Cardiovascular Effects, Monoamine Metabolite Excretion, and Pharmacokinetics – National Geographic

Ayahuasca and Cancer: One Man’s Experience –

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5 Comments on Behind Closed Eyes: An Ayahuasca Experience

  • Just thought I’d share more on this hallucinogenic brew in recent research and news from the MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) Newsletter that I receive:

    10. Canadian Study Explores Ayahuasca-Assisted Therapy for Addiction and Dependence

    On September 23, 2011, the final treatment session (consisting of a five-day therapeutic retreat) took place in MAPS Canada’s observational study of ayahuasca-assisted therapy for individuals suffering from addiction and dependence. The research team has now recruited and is following up with 15 study subjects that have been treated. This study is taking place in British Columbia, and is overseen by MAPS Canada Board Member Philippe Lucas, M.A., with Principal Investigator Gerald Thomas, Ph.D., Rielle Capler, M.H.A., and Kenneth Tupper, Ph.D. Combining Western psychotherapeutic techniques with South American shamanic (Vegetalista) healing practices, this study is gathering preliminary evidence about the safety and effectiveness of ayahuasca-assisted therapy. Treatment consists of participation in a five-day retreat (facilitated by Gabor Maté, M.D.) including ayahuasca-assisted therapy, which may help reduce problematic substance use as well as addictions, compulsive behavior, and self-harming thought patterns. The study is being conducted in cooperation with a British Columbia First Nations band.

    Philippe Lucas, M.A., will speak on ayahuasca research for addiction, and Lucas and Kenneth Tupper, Ph.D., will help lead the all-day “Ayahuasca Healing: Medical, Legal, and Cultural Considerations” workshop at our 25th anniversary conference this December.

    11. MAPS Hungary Publishes Report on European Ayahuasca Research Symposium

    On October 15, 2011, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, Hungary (MAPS Hungary) completed a report on the European Ayahuasca Research Symposium (EARS), a half-day seminar co-sponsored by Stichting OPEN and MAPS which took place in April 2011 at the University of Amsterdam. Over 300 people were in attendance. The Symposium brought together researchers from across Europe who over the last few years have been studying ayahuasca and DMT within the disciplines of anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, and religious studies. The next morning, other European ayahuasca scholars joined presenters from the seminar for a closed-door researcher workgroup intended to stimulate future ayahuasca research and possible collaborations in Europe. The workgroup succeeded in building a shared knowledge base of ongoing and planned ayahuasca research, in facilitating discussions on methodology and obtaining institutional approvals for research, and in developing personal and professional contacts among the few ayahuasca researchers currently based in Europe. The short report shares some of the highlights of the workgroup.

  • I think the most important thing is that alternative medicine should always be based on scientific fact and proper studies. Alternative medicine so readily shoots itself in the foot by welcoming such bogus and unscientific practises such as Homeopathy and the likes. If there is a place for alternative medicine then it needs to steer clear of the unscientific and focus on things that are proven to work (why would anyone really want it any other way).

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  • I have relied upon experiences and studies by such as Greer and Dr. Alexander Shulgin. Shulgin who worked for many years at Searle, retired and set up a laboratory next to his home in California. He concocted many psychedelic drugs and used himself as his own subject, along with his wife. They made copious research notes about their experiences, onsets, duration, intensity, psychological and emotional effects and various side effects. In his last days of his very long life Shulgi would occasionally be visited by the local police, not to harrass him, but to ensure his safety; He would leave burners on while decanting highly volatile chemicals and leave papers and other flammables lying about while he wandered about the mess of a lab. It was closed and declared a fire hazard. His colleagues did not live as long as he did, but students have ensured his works and such are safe. There was a documentary about him, “Dirty Old Man” which is a delight. Of particular note was his experience with DMT, XTC and his displeasure with MDA. I know no movies which accurately describe any psychedelic experience I am aware of. If you are concerned with your freedoms to have Alternative Medicines, Supplements and Naturopathic or Homeopathic medicines, please see the documentary “Big Pharma”. there are others found online.

  • This is a great article. I was at the MAPS Ayahuasca conference a few years back and saw the talk related to this and have not seen anything online until now published about it. Using the scientific method to discover what is happening in the psychedelic realm is fascinating.

    I’m looking forward to more empirical research that can provide the reasons why, for some people, the experience of ayahuasca can relieve them from lifelong psychological problems, for example the writer of the linked article that claims ayahuasca cured his depression. That may be, but I’d love to find out more relating the science underlying these anecdotal claims.

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