Scientific thought on brain development and damage has long held that the brain stops creating new neurons once humans enter adulthood. According to this understanding, when our existing brain cells are damaged or die, they are gone forever, irreplaceable. I remember being told by parents and teachers throughout my childhood, “Don’t hit your head! You can’t grow those brain cells back!” and trusting and fearing this logic. Thankfully, however, scientists recently discovered a process called neurogenesis, or the growth and development of nervous tissue. This means that the creation of new neurons is in fact possible, occurring in an area of the brain known as the hippocampus — the same area of the brain associated with memory.
While undoubtedly an amazing discovery, the problem of aging still remains, as neurogenesis can’t always keep pace with cognitive decline, which is why many suffer from dementia and other age related cognitive deficiencies. Fortunately, there are ways to increase the brain’s rate of neurogenesis, as a recent study conducted by the Beckley/Sant Pau Research Programme and published in the journal Scientific Reports has revealed. According to the study, certain compounds present in ayahuasca, a powerful psychedelic plant medicine, can actually stimulate the birth of new brain cells.
Researchers placed the most prevalent alkaloids in ayahuasca, harmine and tetrahydroharmine, in a petri dish with hippocampal stem cells and saw that this greatly increased the rate at which these cells were able to develop into fully mature neurons. These results were first presented at the Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research in 2016. The results represent the first physical evidence that components of ayahuasca have these neurogenetic properties, opening up a world of possibilities into the realm of psychedelic studies for healing purposes.
Additional experiments aimed at discerning the magnitude of these observed effects are currently underway, including studies on live animals. The replication of the present findings in vivo would be considered a huge breakthrough in mental healthcare and represents the potential opportunity to not only treat neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders, but also redress brain damage caused by stroke or other trauma.
Pictures From the Study
The following information is from beckleyfoundation.org.
What you are seeing is a “static picture” of stem cells taken after several days of treatment with the different compounds. No neurons were present prior to the three different treatments: a) saline (water and salt); b) harmine; and c) tetrahydroharmine.
The first image is the control, with only salty water (saline) added to the cell cultures. The nuclei of the stem cells can be seen in blue, and were treated with saline for several days. Only a few developed into young neurons (the few green spots in the image).
The second image shows the results after several days of treatment with harmin: Blue is still present because it’s a marker of cell nuclei, and all cells have nuclei (stem cells and neurons). The green spots are the young neurons marked using Tuji staining. This staining is specific for “neuron-specific class III beta-tubulin, present in recently created neurons. The red spots show more mature neurons, and the staining marks the microtubule-associated protein 2 (MAP-2), whose presence increases during neuron development.
The third image shows the results obtained after several days of treatment with tetrahydroharmine.
This Is Only the Tip Of the Iceberg for Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca has helped thousand of people, including myself, work through deep-rooted issues and heal from traumatic experiences. It doesn’t surprise me at all that, through this process, it also helps to regenerate new brain cells. It’s almost like a cognitive cleanup — out with the old, in with the new.
More specifically, ayahuasca has assisted many people recover from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, grief, lack of purpose, and much more. This is truly a plant medicine with the potential to heal countless people, and it is my hope that studies like this will prompt lawmakers and officials to lighten the strict laws that govern ayahuasca’s use, as it’s currently a Schedule One drug under the United States’ Controlled Substances Act. A gradual shift is taking place, and it’s only a matter of time before mainstream science and medicine catch up with the incredible healing capacity of this divine and sacred plant.
And no, this does not mean go ahead and take a bunch of psychedelics! That is not what we are implying here. A lot of research needs to be done, and a lot of “professionals” and people need to be consulted before trying substances like this. The education around these topics is still growing.