Collaboration with Dr Jordi Riba at the Sant Pau Institute of Biomedical Research, Barcelona, Spain

The aim of this collaboration, which was formed in 2013, is to better understand the actions of ayahuasca and DMT at a molecular, structural, and functional level, and to examine these effects in both new and experienced users. Using pharmacological techniques and brain imaging methods such as MRI and Spectroscopy, we are investigating the chemical, functional and structural changes in the brain that give rise to subjective effects such as increase in mindfulness capacities and other fascinating psychological phenomena.

Main achievements include:

  • Exploring the potential of ayahuasca to promote neurogenesis, that is to stimulate the birth of new brain cells.In a preliminary study conducted within the framework of the Beckley-Sant Pau research programme and in collaboration with  the Spanish National Research Council, we have found that harmine and tetrahydroharmine, the alkaloids present in highest amounts in ayahuasca, have potent neurogenic properties. The addition of harmine and tetrahydroharmine to cultures containing neural stem cells dramatically increased their differentiation and maturation into neurons. We are currently conducting additional experiments to quantify the magnitude of the observed effects, in addition to studies in live animals. The replication of the present findings in vivo (in living animals) would open a totally new avenue of research for  ayahuasca and its active principles. Potential applications would range from neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders, to brain damage associated with stroke or trauma.
  • Determining the Molecular Sites of Action of Ayahuasca. This study seeks to determine where in the brain ayahuasca acts. Most psychedelics target the serotonin-2 receptor, but it has been proposed that ayahuasca also interacts with other neurotransmitter systems. We address this question by blocking the serotonin-2 receptor (using the drug ketanserin) before giving volunteers ayahuasca, and observing which effects, if any, remain.
  • Brain Imaging to Investigate Glutamate Involvement in the Effects of DMT. This study investigates whether glutamate – the most common neurotransmitter in the brain – contributes to the psychedelic experience, as well as to structural changes in the brain after long-time use. The study will use an MRI technique (‘Spectroscopy’) to measure glutamate concentrations in the brain before and 24 hours after an ayahuasca session, and fMRI to assess changes in functional connections between brain regions. An additional aspect of the study is the investigation of the fascinating experience of ‘entities’ reported by some while under the effects of DMT. Measures of subjective effects have already shown that ayahuasca increases mindfulness capacities.
  • Examining Long-Term Structural Changes Associated with Ayahuasca Use: A Longitudinal Study. In an earlier study, we had observed structural changes in certain areas of the brain. Now, four years later, we will investigate whether there are further changes following regular ayahuasca use. Using structural brain imaging and tests of cognitive performance and personality, we will test for neuropsychological benefits and lasting changes in brain structure, as well as greater self-transcendence.

Research Team and Institution

The Sant Pau Biomedical Research Institute (IIB Sant Pau) conducts research into basic, clinical and epidemiological medicine, and healthcare services. It obtained accreditation as a Healthcare Research Institute with the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation in 2011. The institutions participating in IIB Sant Pau foster translational research projects that bridge the gap between basic and clinical research.

Jordi Riba received his PhD in Pharmacology in 2003 at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), with a thesis on the human pharmacology of ayahuasca. He is Associate Professor of Pharmacology at the UAB and Associate Researcher at the Drug Research Center of the Sant Pau Hospital in Barcelona, Spain. Dr. Riba has been studying ayahuasca for twenty years.

Beckley/Sant Pau publications

The alkaloids of Banisteriopsis caapi, the plant source of the Amazonian hallucinogen Ayahuasca, stimulate adult neurogenesis in vitro

Scientific Reports, 2017

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Assessing the Psychedelic "After-Glow" in Ayahuasca Users: Post-Acute Neurometabolic and Functional Connectivity Changes Are Associated with Enhanced Mindfulness Capacities

International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2017

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Inhibition of alpha oscillations through serotonin 2A receptor activation underlies the visual effects of ayahuasca in humans

 European Neuropsychopharmacology, 2016

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Exploring the therapeutic potential of Ayahuasca: acute intake increases mindfulness-related capacities.

Psychopharmacology, 2016

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Ayahuasca: Pharmacology, neuroscience and therapeutic potential

Brain Research Bulletin, 2016

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