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Surprising Science

Therapeutic Benefits of Psychedelics

Neuroimaging has revealed the neural basis of the intense imagery induced by the “spirit vine”, a hallucinogenic brew long used by rain forest shamans to provoke mystical visions.

What’s the Latest Development?

Ayahuasca—meaning ‘spirit vine’ in Quechua languages— is a hallucinogenic brew that has been used for centuries by rain forest shamans as a religious sacrament. The infusion facilitates mystical visions and revelations, and is said to have healing properties. There had been very few studies of how it affects brain function until recently a team of Brazilian researchers reported on one of the very first functional neuroimaging studies of the drug’s effects.

What’s the Big Idea?

The new study contributes to understanding of how this class of drugs affects brain function. It suggests that the visions induced by ayahuasca engage the brain’s memory circuits, and that this may “feed” activity in the primary visual cortex, which in turn drives activity in the other visual areas. All of these effects are thought to be mediated by increased activation of serotonin receptors throughout the brain regions involved.


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