Ayahuasca – Ethnobotanical medicine for potential treatment of ALS
This article is the culmination of six years work, having studied ethnobotanical natural medicine and the field of neurodisease, making connections between the two in the search for something viable in terms of an alternative treatment option for ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and similar neurodegenerative conditions.
In south and central america, the native people within many tribes living in the Amazon rainforest have a long historical tradition of making and consuming a natural medicinal tea called ayahuasca. It is harvested and prepared mainly from a wild growing vine, it’s latin name being Banisteriopsis Caapi. Often, but not always, leaves from trees named Chacruna or Chaliponga (Psychotria Viridis and Diplopterys Cabrerana) are added to the tea, or in some regions Jurema tree bark (of the Leguminosae family and Mimosa species).
The rainforests of the earth are known to be an enormous resource and a necessity for upholding the ecosystem of the planet. It is estimated that a very great number of undiscovered plants of medicinal value, are yet to be explored within these forests. Many conventional pharmaceutical medicines originate from substances found in rainforest plants, or their synthesized variants. Ethnopharmacologists have long been aware that there is vast support for the medicinal value of ayahuasca in its use against a number of diseases, but until recently this has been limited to individual claims. Even if a great number of very in-depth and credible personal stories have been available, serious studies have previously been missing.
This, however, has come to change in the last decade. 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 – controlling neurotransmission, muscle/motor activity, memory and coordination. This gives probable cause to the theory that ayahuasca could be an effective treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. Promising results as of date have also been obtained from studying the substance psilocybin, remarkebly closely related from a molecular staindpoint to the substances found in ayahuasca, naturally occuring in certain species of medicinal mushrooms consumed by the indigenous people where ayahuasca is also used.
According to Dr. Juan Ramos, head of the neurological disease department at the South Florida university, USA, initial studies show that these tryptamine-family substances stimulate the development of new cells in the areas of the brain controlling the above mentioned functions. If this could prove to be an eventual cure through complete restoration of damaged or destroyed cells remains to be seen, but initial results indicate this could potentially be the case. Other studies led by Dr. Jordi Riba at the spanish university of Sant Pau, Barcelona, show connections between ayahuasca and neural pathway redevelopment in the neocortex. Cancer researchers have also shown interest in B. Caapi, as its alkaloids have shown to be effective against the growth of cancer cells, and are believed to be able to stabilize and balance mitochondrial function. This relates also to ALS research in that mitochondrial dysfunction is nominated one of the main causes of cell damage in ALS, and that the normalization of mitochondrial metabolism through modulation of calcium influx from beneficial alkaloids contained in ayahuasca could prevent motor neuron damage and increase survival rate of these cells. Mitochondrial function is directly related to neuronal survival, and unregulated levels of intracellular calcium are thought to initiate motor neuron dysfunction, or amplify other mechanisms prone to injure motor neurons.
Eduardo E. Schenberg, Federal University of Sao Paulo:
“There are enough available evidence that the active substances in ayahuasca, especially dimethyltryptamine and harmine, has the positive effect of preventing cancer cells in cultures used for cancer research, and that these substances affect the biochemical processes that are crucial to the treatment of cancer in-vitro as well as in-vivo. The reports available about people with experience from ayahuasca in the treatment of cancer should be taken seriously. The hypothesis is that the combination of (beta-carboline) alkaloids and dimethyltryptamine present in ayahuasca blocks the transportation of nutrients to tumours, lessens the dividing process of cancer cells, and changes the unbalanced mutation-causing metabolism in cancer cells.”
A recent study by Icahn School of Medicine, New York, singled out harmine (from the ayahuasca Caapi plant) among 100.000 substances, as the only one able to cause beta cells in the pancreas (the internal organ that produces insulin) to regenerate, a discovery of great interest to diabetes researchers. Other evidence suggest that ayahuasca may have the potential to regenerate several different types of cells, in many places in the body where needed, the specifics of which calls for medical research in many areas – especially neurodegenerative diseases without a known cure. There is also a growing interest in exploring the cell regenerative properties of these plants within spinal chord injury research. Harmine in ayahuasca has also been found to regulate glutamate pump expression in the central nervous system, thereby reducing glutamate toxicity – one of the causes believed to trigger and aggravate ALS through excitotoxic reactions occuring through excessive receptor stimulation by neurotransmitters.
Along with several other similar harmala-alkaloids that can be found in B. Caapi, harmaline is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor. Monoamine oxidase (MAO) is an enzyme in the body that breaks down signal substances (such as serotonin). The inhibition of MAO allows the signal substance to remain in the synapse for a longer period of time. Many anti-depressants work in a similar way, as they stimulate receptors in a targeted area. However, the alkaloids present in ayahuasca should not be compared to antidepressants, as they are not the same though they both have the ability to affect the same receptors. A comparison is that Caapi alkaloids and antidepressants have the same type of delivery system, but different contents. The biochemical properties of plants used in ayahuasca, and the effects they cause on a multitude of bodily functions remain unique to these plants alone. Various types of harmala alkaloids exert suppression of neurotoxic metabolites, such as quinolinic acid and kynurenine – metabolites correlating with ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease, all in which elevated levels of given metabolites are found and thought to contribute to onset of disease through interaction with spinal motor neurons.
Ayahuasca in itself is proven to be unharmful, as its compounds are non-toxic, though temporary side effects such as nausea and vertigo are common. However, combining certain medical drugs with MAO-inhibitors (such as the ones found in ayahuasca) can be dangerous, even lethal in some cases. This means that in order to safely consume ayahuasca, one must not combine it with any contraindicated medicinal drugs, and those suffering from certain health conditions such as epilepsy or high blood pressure are adviced to refrain from this treatment. The more or less uncomfortable side effects from ayahuasca, are greatly dose-dependent, and a smaller amount consumed for medicinal purpose can thus mean few, if any, side effects experienced.
The substance known as dimethyltryptamine, found in plants traditionally added to ayahuasca, is regulated by law in a number of countries classified as a scheduled substance. (Questionably so, due to its medicinal value in multiple areas). It is these secondary added plants and this particular substance that induces an altered state of consciousness, a many times misunderstood and stigmatized phenomenon. A description of this altered state is that it is dreamlike, that it stimulates memory and the ability to think abstract, and that it has self-therapeutic qualities. Even though dimethyltryptamine is naturally occuring in the human body, thought to be produced in small amounts by the pineal gland in the brain during the dream phases of sleep, it remains an illegal substance in a number of western countries since the 1960’s and 70’s, when lawmakers prematurely criminalized many substances suspected of having any effect on the mind, including natural ones, due to the widespread moral panic at the time – regardless of the fact that many of them, including dimethyltryptamine, has never been proven unhealthy in any way, and has in fact been used by indigenous people, in the form extracted from plants, to successfully treat disease for centuries. Leaf juice from Chacruna has been used traditionally as a remedy for migraines and ant bites, and Jurema bark for treating burn wounds – significantly quickening regeneration of skin and scar tissue. Dimethyltryptamine also targets chaperone sigma 1, a receptor subtype expressed in both neurons and glia of multiple regions within the central nervous system, with capacity to modulate biological mechanisms implicated with neurodegeneration. Sigma 1-receptors present compelling targets for pharmacologically treating neurodegenerative disorders, and dimethyltryptamine acts as an endogenous Sigma-1 receptor regulator, but interactions between the two in association with motor neuron disease is not understood.
Ayahuasca is proven to be non-addictive, and is even used to aid people in breaking their drug dependencies, as ayahuasca has a detoxifying and documented effect of ridding the user of drugrelated abstinence issues.
Summary of Key Points:
Ayahuasca could effectively be used in treatment of ALS and other motor neuron diseases based on the fact that studies suggest uniquely antioxidative effects that seem to protect brain/nerve cells, targeting motor neurons through a unique biochemical transport system, and that it and other moleculary similar substances, also naturally occuring, stimulate neurogenesis – the development of new brain/nerve cells, and the communicative capacity between these. In studies it has been found to reduce symptoms in Parkinsons’s patients – all neurodegenerative diseases share common ground, thus making it likely that something that improves a given neurological condition could also be beneficial to other conditions nearly related. Also based on credible personal accounts from people having used ayahuasca for symptom relief from their multiple sclerosis (once again – the common ground of neurodegenerative diseases), documented in books about ayahuasca, and from descriptions of early stage minor improvement by those with various types of ALS now participating in the treatment project, already having used this medicine for a period of time. Studies also indicate ability to normalize metabolism in mitochondria, crucial to motor neuron survival, and to regulate and decrease levels of excitotoxicity in the central nervous system.