Symptoms associated with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other forms of dementia are brought on by the literal death of neurons within the human mind.
While humans are somewhat capable of growing new neurons throughout their life, modern medicine has yet to find a way to jumpstart neuronal recovery to the extent needed while battling these awful diseases.
Now, however, help may soon be on the way from a most unexpected source: an ancient brew of tea originating from the Amazon.
Ayahuasca tea sets itself apart mightily from your usual cup of Earl Grey thanks to the high level of dimethyltryptamine (DMT) it boasts. DMT, often referred to as the “spiritual molecule,” offers potent hallucinatory properties similar to LSD or magic mushrooms.
Putting DMT’s more psychedelic qualities aside for a moment, researchers from the Complutense University of Madrid say ayahuasca tea can do absolute wonders for the mind and promotes neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons). This Amazonian tea also induces the production of other types of helpful neural cells such as oligodendrocytes and astrocytes. Without getting too in-depth, both of those cell types perform important tasks ensuring the functioning and protection of the brain and spinal cord.
“This capacity to modulate brain plasticity suggests that it has great therapeutic potential for a wide range of psychiatric and neurological disorders, including neurodegenerative diseases”, explains José Ángel Morales, a researcher in the UCM and CIBERNED Department of Cellular Biology, in a release.
Of course, it’s safe to say that most (some?) patients won’t want to go on a trippy, psychedelic adventure each time they drink their medicinal tea. Luckily, researchers were able to eliminate the psychoactive effects of ayahuasca tea while simultaneously retaining its neurogenetic properties.
Let’s dig a bit more into that incredible scientific feat. How exactly did scientists remove the psychedelic potency of ayahuasca tea? First, one must understand how ayahuasca tea is made in the first place. It is made up of two main ingredients: the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the chacruna shrub (Psychotria Viridis). The chacruna shrub is what actually contains all the DMT, while the ayahuasca vine complements the concoction by blocking bodily enzymes from breaking down the DMT too quickly.
Once the DMT is in one’s body, it binds itself to the type-2A serotonergic brain receptor, evoking hallucinations. To stop this from happening, the study’s authors were able to artificially manipulate the DMT to bind to a different serotonin receptor that doesn’t produce the same psychoactive effects. The success of this aspect of the research “greatly facilitates its future administration to patients,” according to the study.
“The challenge is to activate our dormant capacity to form neurons and thus replace the neurons that die as a result of the disease. This study shows that DMT is capable of activating neural stem cells and forming new neurons,” Morales concludes.
These conclusions were reached after four years spent observing mice who had been administered DMT. By the end of the project, the rodents showed “a greater cognitive capacity when treated with this substance.”
DMT, in and of itself, is a substance still very much shrouded in mystery. Some scientists say it exists naturally within the human mind and helps facilitate dreams during sleep. Others say it is only released during birth and death. Many believe DMT is responsible for those fantastical experiences (walking toward a shining light, etc.) so often reported by people who have had a near-death incident.
Wherever it comes from, it may just help turn the tide in humanity’s on-going fight against neurodegenerative diseases.
The full study can be found here, published in Translational Psychiatry.