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Key Ingredient in Hallucinogenic Ayahuasca Brew Stimulates Growth of Human Neural Cells

After just four days, researchers observed an incredible 71.5 percent increase in the generation of neural cells.

| 2 min read

After just four days, researchers observed an incredible 71.5 percent increase in the generation of neural cells.

For centuries, Native South-Americans have brewed hallucinogenic ayahuasca teas using Amazonian plants. The brews are said to induce spiritual and therapeutic experiences, which has attracted tourists to venture down to South America to take part in healing ceremonies led by shamans — healers who are thought to have influence over good and evil spirits.

Previous studies have suggested that ayahuasca helps reduce depression and anxiety in humans, so a team of researchers from decided to zero in on one of ayahuasca’s main substances: harmine.

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Harmine, a beta-carboline (a type of nitrogen-containing compound), was recently shown to have antidepressant effects in mice, so the team decided to experiment with human cells.

"It has been shown in rodents that antidepressant medication acts by inducing neurogenesis. So we decided to test if harmine, an alkaloid with the highest concentration in the psychotropic plant decoction ayahuasca, would trigger neurogenesis in human neural cells", study author Vanja Dakic said in a press release.

The researchers, in a collaboration between the D'Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR) and the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (ICB-UFRJ), exposed human neural progenitors to harmine. Progenitors are biological cells that have the ability to differentiate into a specific target cell — they give rise to neurons, or the basic nerve cells that transmit messages in the brain.

Incredibly, after just four days, the researchers observed a 71.5 percent increase in generation of human neural cells, thanks to the harmine. They’ve published the research in PeerJ.

"Our results demonstrate that harmine is able to generate new human neural cells, similarly to the effects of classical antidepressant drugs, which frequently are followed by diverse side effects,” explains study researcher Stevens Rehen.

“Moreover, the observation that harmine inhibits DYRK1A [an enzyme in humans] in neural cells allows us to speculate about future studies to test its potential therapeutic role over cognitive deficits observed in Down syndrome and neurodegenerative diseases.”

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