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The first record of ayahuasca arrived in the West in 1908, thanks to the British botanist Richard Spruce, who mostly described lots of vomiting. Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes followed up a half-century later with the first academic account. Around the same time, Beat author William Burroughs wrote letters depicting his quest for the tea to Allen Ginsberg, collected in 1963 as The Yage Letters. But in Western literature, there wasn't much more than that.

“There was nothing,” says McKenna.

Seeking to change that, McKenna embarked on his first trip to South America at age twenty. A decade later, he returned, this time to research his dissertation. After months in the jungle, he brought plant samples back to his lab, where he showed for the first time how ayahuasca works.

In a greenhouse at the University of Minnesota, Dennis McKenna tends to one of two key plants used to prepare ayahuasca
Emily Utne
In a greenhouse at the University of Minnesota, Dennis McKenna tends to one of two key plants used to prepare ayahuasca

To make the brew, shamans boil together two Amazonian plants for many hours, sometimes days. As they simmer, the DMT contained in one of the plants mixes with the other one, the Banisteriopsis vine, and its key ingredient: monoamine oxidase inhibitors, or MAOIs. Normally when people ingest DMT -- a not-uncommon compound in nature -- the monoamine oxidase in our gut knocks it out. But the Banisteriopsis allows the hallucinogen to reach the brain.

By the middle of the twentieth century, several Brazilian churches splintered off from the shamans and took ayahuasca into a formal setting. In 1991, one of these -- a group called the Uniao do Vegetal, or UDV -- invited McKenna to one of its twice-monthly ceremonies, during which the tea is administered as a sacrament. (A New Mexico-based branch of the church won a 2006 Supreme Court case allowing them to use ayahuasca in their ceremonies.)

In a room with 500 other people, McKenna drank first one cup, then a second, and was plunged into one of the most vivid ayahuasca visions of his life: a molecule’s-eye view of photosynthesis, or as he explains it, “the force on which life depends.” When McKenna returned to his body, he writes in his new book, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, “I knew that I had been given an inestimable gift.”

McKenna began devising a study to look at the biomedical effects of ayahuasca, and within two years, he was back in Brazil. On this trip, he took along a team that included Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatrist who heads the Division of Pediatric and Adolescent Psychiatry at UCLA’s medical school.

“Nowadays, the word is out,” Grob says. “But when we did this, I’d say, ‘We’re doing an ayahuasca study,’ and people would say, ‘Aya-what-sca?’”

For about a month in the summer of 1993, the team of the Hoasca Project ran tests on fifteen randomly selected members of the UDV church, all of them men who had been using ayahuasca regularly for at least ten years. The scientists ran the same tests on similarly aged men who had never been exposed to ayahuasca.

They measured every biological metric they could think of -- blood pressure, heart rate, pupil dilation, body temperature -- and used structured psychiatric interviews to get where their instruments couldn’t: inside the participants’ minds.

Many of the men had struggled with alcoholism and depression prior to joining the church, Grob learned. They credited ayahuasca with transforming their outlook. “In some cases,” Grob says, “they felt like it had saved their lives.”

When the researchers left Brazil and started processing their data, the blood work came back with one of the project’s most startling discoveries: The long-term ayahuasca users showed higher levels of the transporters of serotonin, the brain chemical that regulates mood. “That’s the target that antidepressants work on, and here it was significantly elevated in the drinkers,” McKenna says.

Deficits in serotonin transporters are also connected with problems like alcoholism and depression -- the same issues the fifteen subjects said the ayahuasca had helped cure. “Here we have a medicine that apparently reverses these deficits, something no other medicine is known to do,” explains McKenna. “And there’s also a correlation to behavioral change. You can’t say it caused it, but there’s definitely a correlation.”

Today, twenty years after the study, McKenna is preparing to revisit the findings. Within a year, he aims to raise enough money to fund a new study, this time in Peru, to look at the effects of ayahuasca on people with PTSD.

He hopes that additional research will help him establish his ultimate goal: a destination medical clinic in Peru.

“If we can bring together the best of shamanism and the best of psychotherapy, I think we can offer a new paradigm for healing,” says McKenna. “What we’re really trying to do here is revolutionize psychiatry.”

Lisa Yeo doesn’t look like a junkie. The 47-year-old has shimmering blond hair and clear skin, and wears a stylish tangerine shirt. It’s Halloween, and her two dogs -- a Shih Tzu and a Dachshund -- yap incessantly as kids come to the door.

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15 comments
Sid Quintana
Sid Quintana

It causes mental illnes, cant belive you people promote this bullshit about time to delete westword

Mane Rok
Mane Rok

Ryan InkLine Howell Clint Edwards Matt Deca Kenney Koichi Ichiban Ninomiya

Jordan Snyder
Jordan Snyder

@Sid- you forgot the other half of that nugget of info - only for people who were predisposed already. And that goes for most psychoactive substances including caffeine.

Tianna Crowell
Tianna Crowell

Ibogaine blocks the physical symptoms of withdrawal. It's not a cure... You can only successfully quit if you are mentally ready... But it sure is a damn good starting point. It's a shame these types of medicines aren't mainstream.

Tianna Crowell
Tianna Crowell

Yes.... Ibogaine.. My friend was a heroin addict and he was on methadone for years... Flooded Ibogaine and it was a complete turn around

Jøsh Kåmm
Jøsh Kåmm

Actually it is used among the tribes in South America and another similar substance that has actually successfully cured heroin addiction is ibogaine no first hand experience tho

Oi'Ram Arejan
Oi'Ram Arejan

Ayahuasca has helped millions of people in south Africa nonetheless around the world, it would be dumb not to take it into consideration as a healing medicine in the states. But then again why in the world would our government want a medicine that spiritually awakens and shows hope in this distraught world we live in. O and don't forget all the antidepressant companies, they would no longer be needed. Can't have that happen

Oi'Ram Arejan
Oi'Ram Arejan

Only if people would actually read this with an open mind, makes me happy though the Denver Westword atleast tries to shine a lil light on this subject. Namaste

Rhine
Rhine

Had a bad trip friend ? 

 
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