Could a psychedelic drink from the Amazon jungle be the key to combating destructive neurodegenerative diseases like ALS? That’s the focus of an article by Daniel Gustafsson, who is studying the connections between ethnobotanical medicine and neurodisease.
While native people in the Amazon have been using ayahuasca for centuries, and its popularity has been growing among westerners in the last few decades, the science on the substance has not yet caught up to the legend.
Researchers are trying to remedy the gaps in our knowledge, however. One informal study currently underway is looking at how ayahuasca can be used to treat people suffering from ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — best known as the neurodegenerative disease that cut short the life of prohibition-era baseball star Lou Gehrig. Initial updates from the project have found that people are experiencing a wider range of movement, tension relief in their muscles and improved grip strength after taking ayahuasca.
There is science behind the hypothesis that ayahusaca could be useful. “Natural substances extracted from the ayahuasca plants have been found to possess unique restorative and strongly antioxidative properties on specific nerve cells in the brain and central nervous system,” Gustafsson writes, “controlling neurotransmission, muscle/motor activity, memory and coordination.”
That means it could be effective against diseases like ALS, which currently has no known cure, as well as other neurodegenerative conditions like Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Initial studies have suggested that ayahuasca might actually stimulate new cell growth in areas where these diseases have ravaged the brain.
In addition to the possible physiological benefits for patients with ALS, ayahuasca and other psychedelics can be useful in a psychotherapeutic role as well by helping patients mentally come to grips with their illness.
Other research suggests that ayahuasca could be useful in treating conditions as varied as spinal chord injuries, diabetes and cancer. Yet scientific studies are still few and far between, because the substance is considered a Schedule I controlled substance with no medical value by the United States government, making it difficult for researchers to get permission to work with it.
There is a ray of hope, however, even in the face of numerous governments’ refusal to consider any rationalization of their drug laws. Banisteriopsis Caapi, one of the plants from which ayahuasca brews are concocted, does not contain any dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. That means that when consumed on its own it doesn’t invoke the psychedelic visions for which ayahuasca is famous, and therefore is not banned in the United States and most other countries. While B. Caapi on its own doesn’t boast the full medicinal portfolio of the true ayahuasca drink, it might still be helpful for people facing ALS and other diseases who can’t find relief anywhere else.
One big step, Gustafsson argues, would be to stop calling plant-based psychedelics “drugs,” lumping them in with more harmful substances that are tied to public health problems. “A more correct term for these plants, with respect to the indigenous culture in which ayahuasca is a part of, would be ‘entheogens’,” he writes, “which means plants used in a context sacred to the native people, inducing spiritual experiences.”