THE BLOG
06/20/2016 04:33 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

Is Brazil the New Epicenter of Psychedelic Science in the World?

I am part of the scientific committee of the Second World Ayahuasca Conference, which will be held in Rio Branco, in the Brazilian Amazon, in October. I'd like to share some of the amazing science involving ayahuasca.

The conference combines a main track, a parallel track consisting of researchers who answered the "call for abstracts", a film festival, and a series of cultural events. The main track will have representatives of the Brazilian ayahuasca religions, about 100 indigenous individuals, and 11 round tables. These include: Amazonian shamanism, culture and cultural heritage, scientific research, contemporary uses, clinical interventions, challenges of globalization, politics and laws, environment and sustainability, plants from the Amazon, gender issues, and risks.

In the first edition of the conference in Ibiza in 2014, one hundred presentation proposals were submitted. Now, two years later, this number has doubled. Ayahuasca science seems to be spreading around the world as vigorously and dynamically as the brew itself. A number of professionals are increasingly inspired to study this intriguing substance through the lenses of different disciplines.

From the 200 proposals received, 120 were for the academic track, and 80 for the community track, which consists of practitioners with empirical knowledge. The abstracts come from an impressive 28 countries! Half of the proposals are from the area of social sciences, and the other half from the biomedical, psychology and public health fields combined. Although there is still a predominance of male researchers and practitioners, an increasing number of women are presenting on these issues.

The topics are as varied as: ayahuasca for homeless people, treatment for problematic drug and alcohol users, use by war veterans and prisoners, for coping with death and in giving birth, and ayahuasca's role in mental health disorders and in enhancing psychological well-being. They also address ritual practice, shamanic knowledge, inter-ethnic relationships, cultural hybridism, religious transnationalization, the politics of healing, and commodification. Further, the relationship with alternative therapies and New Age spirituality will be contemplated. Some presentations also focus on the topics of legality, health risks and sexual abuse. Finally, arts and music, alongside ecology and conservation, are on the menu.

Almost half of the proposals came from Brazil. Though that is understandable, the conference has revealed, to our surprise, the outstanding emergence of new research groups throughout the country. These include:

Program for the Orientation and Treatment for Drug Addicts (PROAD)

São Paulo
Dr. Dartiu Xavier da Silveira

This focuses on a 21-year-old research group on ayahuasca that materialized out of the organization PROAD, which has been conducting research with drugs since 1991. Currently, around 20 professors, post docs, and graduate and undergraduate students research the therapeutic potentials and ritualistic use of ayahuasca, including epidemiological studies, clinical essays, comorbidity studies, neurosciences, and harm reduction.

Interdisciplinary Group for Psychoactive Studies (NEIP)

São Paulo and other cities
Dr. Bia Labate
A 15-year-old social sciences network with 70 professors and postgraduate-level researchers. The members of the group have organized several conferences, published two books and a large number of master's dissertations and PhDs, predominantly in anthropology, on the Brazilian ayahuasca religions (Santo Daime, Barquinha and União do Vegetal), new urban ayahuasca uses, and indigenous and mestizo ayahuasca uses.

University of São Paulo (USP)

Ribeirão Preto
Dr. Jaime Hallak, Dr. José Alexandre Crippa, Dr. Flávia Osório and Dr. Antônio Zuardi

A research group of more than 20 professors, post-docs, and graduate students that has been involved for more than a decade in the investigation of new drugs for the treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and Parkinson's disease. The group is one of the most productive Brazilian scientific teams in the biomedical field. They perform clinical trials with both healthy volunteers and patients, investigating the potential therapeutic use of several drugs, including ayahuasca, cannabidiol, sodium nitroprusside, and oxytocin, among others.

Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN)

Natal
Dr. Draulio de Araujo

This is a seven-year-old interdisciplinary group of 30 researchers, including professors, post docs, graduate and undergraduate students. Their research interests include the acute and lasting antidepressant effects of ayahuasca. Different biological and behavioral markers are investigated in the fields of biochemistry, neuropsychology, and neuropsychiatry, using methods such as MRIs and EEGs.

University of Brasília (UNB)

Brasília
Dr. Regina Célia de Oliveira

This work is from a two-year-old group composed of six botanical researchers and one toxicologist, including professors and graduate and undergraduate students. The focus of the research is to both find out which species of the vine Banisteriopsis spp are used by the Brazilian ayahuasca religions, and to understand their ethnobotancial knowledge of these species. The focus includes external morphology, cytogenetic analysis, DNA sequencing, chemistry characterization, phyto-chemistry, anatomy, genetic diversity, conservation, phylogenetic analysis, chemistry composition, and ayahuasca's bioactive components.

State University of Campinas (UNICAMP)

Campinas
Dr. Luis Fernando Tófoli
 
This is a one-year-old interdisciplinary group, composed of 20 professors, researchers, and students. Their research interests include agricultural management of Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis, chemical analyses of the species of ayahuasca itself, ayahuasca's physiology, the stability of ayahuasca samples, lyophilization, metabolomics, therapeutic potentials, and neuroscientific studies.

According to the researchers, the main challenges are:

- to find funding;
- to obtain access to DMT;
- the orthodoxy of some ayahuasca groups and access to them;
- to find volunteers for the experiments (due to recruitment criteria);
- prejudice from health professionals;
- access to the vine and the leaf, both growing in nature and cultivated;
- the analytical challenges of characterizing the chemistry of the plants collected.

On the other hand, as potential benefits, these researches can:

- acknowledge and register a wide variety of rich cultural practices;
- broaden the understanding of diverse contexts of use and its meanings;
- dissipate stigma and criminalization;
- bring more legitimacy to ayahuasca groups;
- propose alternatives to the challenges of expansion;
- inform about risks and benefits;
- learn about mental health processes in healthy individuals;
- find alternative treatment for mental illness or disorders, including new forms of treatment for depression and anxiety;
- develop psychedelic therapies;
- understand the origin and age of the species;
- understand the cultural and genetic diversity of the plants.

Despite the huge challenges in the current Brazilian political-and scientific-scenario, psychedelic science seems to be growing naturally. If you are interested in these topics, this conference is "like honey to bees," as we say in Brazil. Come join in this unique dialogue between traditional knowledge and science!

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