Rationale: Ayahuasca is a South American psychoactive plant tea which contains the serotonergic psychedelic N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and monoamine-oxidase inhibitors that render DMT orally active. Previous investigations with ayahuasca have highlighted a psychotropic effect profile characterized by enhanced introspective attention, with individuals reporting altered somatic perceptions and intense emotional modifications, frequently accompanied by visual imagery. Despite recent advances in the study of ayahuasca pharmacology, the neural correlates of acute ayahuasca intoxication remain largely unknown.
Objectives: To investigate the effects of ayahuasca administration on regional cerebral blood flow.
Methods: Fifteen male volunteers with prior experience in the use of psychedelics received a single oral dose of encapsulated freeze-dried ayahuasca equivalent to 1.0 mg DMT/kg body weight and a placebo in a randomized double-blind clinical trial. Regional cerebral blood flow was measured 100-110 min after drug administration by means of single photon emission tomography (SPECT).
Results: Ayahuasca administration led to significant activation of frontal and paralimbic brain regions. Increased blood perfusion was observed bilaterally in the anterior insula, with greater intensity in the right hemisphere, and in the anterior cingulate/frontomedial cortex of the right hemisphere, areas previously implicated in somatic awareness, subjective feeling states, and emotional arousal. Additional increases were observed in the left amygdala/parahippocampal gyrus, a structure also involved in emotional arousal.
Conclusions: The present results suggest that ayahuasca interacts with neural systems that are central to interoception and emotional processing and point to a modulatory role of serotonergic neurotransmission in these processes.