Transcultural Perspective on Consciousness: Traditional Use of Ayahuasca in Psychotherapy in the 21st Century in Western World

By Re, T.; Palma, J. et al. | Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, July 2016 | Go to article overview

Transcultural Perspective on Consciousness: Traditional Use of Ayahuasca in Psychotherapy in the 21st Century in Western World


Re, T., Palma, J., Martins, J. E., Simoes, M., Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy


"... imagine if you could have the cathartic breakthroughs that ten years of hard therapy might give you in one afternoon."

--Jason Silva (2015)

New research on ayahuasca's potential applications in psychiatry and psychoteraphy have been undertaken in the last few years. It is relevant to start by pointing out that this south American brew has a very low potential for abuse, having no associated psychiatric or neuropsychological disorders (Grob et al., 1996; Da Silveira et al., 2005; Gable, 2007; Halpern et al., 2008; Fabregas et al., 2010).

The most studied area in which ayahuasca may be applied is drug addiction. A Canadian study conducted by Thomas et al. assessed the impact of having ayahuasca ceremonies integrated in a rehabilitation programme in the form of a retreat (Gabor Mate's Working with Addiction and Stress). For that, 12 volunteers were selected and assessed by several psychometric instruments: Difficulty in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS), Philadelphia Mindfulness Scale (PHLMS), Empowerment Scale (ES), Hope Scale (HS), the McGill Quality of Life questionnaire and the 4 Week Substance Use Scale (4WSUS), which were given at baseline and repeated two and four weeks after the retreat, as well as monthly for five months (Thomas et al., 2013). Furthermore, the State of Consciousness Questionnaire (SOCQ) was given immediately after the retreat. The referred instruments were chosen because their analysis fits the bio-psycho-social model of human behaviour, trauma and drug addiction: though them it is possible to assess four factors which influence the drug abuse pattern (Emotion Regulation, Mindfulness, Empowerment and Hopefulness). Furthermore, while the McGill Quality of Life questionnaire is both a potential influencer of patterns of substance use and an outcome measure, the 4WSUS is the main outcome predictor, by assessing problematic substance use (Thomas et al., 2013).

Thomas et al. found out that the volunteers' score for the McGill Quality of Life questionnaire increased with statistical significance over time, and consistently after a slight decrease between the first and third follow-ups (figure 1). Both Hopefulness and Mindfulness criteria had a linear and statistically significant increase (figure 2) (Thomas et al., 2013).

Finally, it can be observed that the 4WSUS score decreased for all assessed drugs, having this decrease statistical significance for cocaine (figure 4). The only exceptions were Cannabis, sedatives and opiates, probably because these were medically prescribed to the subjects (Thomas et al., 2013).

It can be concluded that this therapy model seems to be associated with statistically significant improvements in factors which hold an inverse relationship with drug addiction (Thomas et al., 2013).

Interest for the understanding of ayahuasca's therapeutic potential in drug addiction is to determine by which mechanism the brew acts in order to promote behavioural and personality changes that allow freedom from addiction.

One hypothesis lays on ayahuasca's pharmacology. Currently, the well-accepted hypothesis regarding neurochemical mechanisms of addiction suggests a dopaminergic hyperactivity in the mesolimbic pathway. This pathways is constituted by three critical brain areas, the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a neuronal group which releases dopamine when subjected to internal or external stimuli associated with addictive behaviour, the nucleus accumbens (NA), which receives dopaminergic signals from the VTA and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), directly connected to the VTA and indirectly connected to the amygdala. It is proposed that ayahuasca may reduce the dopamine levels in the mesolimbic pathway through its action upon the serotonin receptors (Liester and Prickett, 2012).

Firstly, while DMT is regarded to be a full agonist of [5HT.sub.2A] receptors, [beta]-carbolines may also act as agonists of these receptors. …

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