Ayahuasca in Adolescence : A Neuropsychological Assessment
Evelyn Doering-Silveira, Enrique Lopez, Charles S. Grob, Marlene Dobkin de Rios, Luisa K. Alonso, Cristiane Tacla,Itiro Shirakawa, Paulo H. Bertolucci, & Dartiu X. Da Silveira
Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 2005, 37, (2), 123-128.
The purpose of the study was to evaluate neuropsychologically adolescents who use ayahuasca in a religious context. A battery of neuropsychological tests was administered to adolescents who use ayahuasca. These subjects were compared to a matched control group of adolescents who did not use ayahuasca. The controls were matched with regards to sex, age, and education. The neuropsychological battery included tests of speeded attention, visual search, sequencing, psychomotor speed, verbal and visual abilities, memory, and mental flexibility. The statistical results for subjects from matched controls on neuropsychological measures were computed using independent t-tests. Overall, statistical findings suggested that there was no significant difference between the two groups on neuropsychological measures. Even though, the data overall supports that there was not a difference between ayahuasca users and matched controls on neuropsychological measures, further studies are necessary to support these findings.
Keywords : adolescence, ayahuasca, cognition, hallucinogen, neuropsychology, religion
Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic beverage made essentially of two Amazonian plants. It is prepared by boiling the stems of a vine named Banisteriopsis caapi and the leaves of Psychotria viridis, although other plants are often mixed in as well. This psychedelic tea has been used for centuries by native Indian and mestizo shamans in Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador for healing and divination. In the eighteenth century ayahuasca was taken up by the colonists as a result of their proximity to tribal peoples during
the Colonial period. The mixing of native contexts with nonnative settings resulted in the incorporation of ayahuasca as a psychoactive ritual sacrament in ceremonies by several different religious movements. In Brazil, ayahuasca is used as sacrament within the context of religious practice by the syncretic churches União do Vegetal (UDV) and Santo Daime, among others; this practice was legally approved in 1987. Churches using ayahuasca in Brazil differ somewhat from one another as to their principles, rituals, and composition of the tea.
According to the laws of the UDV, the use of ayahuasca is restricted to religious ceremonies where multigenerational families meet twice a month for approximately four hours. In sound accordance with the principles of this church (UDV), adolescents are encouraged to voluntarily join their parents and drink the ayahuasca tea during the ritual ceremonies. Adherents commonly believe that ayahuasca is
harmless and potentially beneficial for adolescents (e.g., prophylaxis against drug abuse) as long as it is imbibed in a religious context. To date, however, this assumption has never been confirmed by means of controlled studies on the effects of periodic ritual use of ayahuasca by adolescents.
American and Brazilian physicians, psychologists and social scientists conducted a comprehensive study with UDV adult members in Manaus, the large capital city of the state of Amazon located in the heart of the Brazilian tropical rainforest. This was the first investigation of what is called the Hoasca Project. Phase I evaluations of pharmacokinetics, neuroendocrine assays, and serotonin function were carried out as well as psychiatric, medical health, and baseline neuropsychological screenings. (Callaway et al. 1999, 1996, 1994; McKenna et al. 1998; Grob et al. 1996). Contrasting the findings from 15 men who had been UDV members for at least 10 years (subjects) with demographically- matched controls who did not belong to the UDV and had never consumed ayahuasca, this pilot investigation concluded that there was no evidence of any injurious effect which could have been induced or caused by or be related to the ritualistic use of ayahuasca. On the contrary, these long-term UDV members reported a marked decline in severe psychiatric disorders, including discontinuation of cigarette, alcohol, and recreational drug use following their entry into this sect. Dramatic improvements in their personal values, behavioral compliance, and sense of purpose were described as well. Neuropsychological testing of longterm adult UDV members and matched controls found the UDV members to have statistically significant superior concentration and short-term memory on some measures, though overall both groups scored well.
Currently, in Brazil, adolescent membership of the UDV is estimated at over 1,200. A thorough investigation of UDV adolescents’ cognitive profile is definitely warranted when one considers the slow but ever-growing population that consumes ayahuasca worldwide on a regular basis, and the significant proportion of younger people who are among them.