1957 – The Discovery of the Ayahuasca Chemical Structure in Medicine
Although the psychedelic molecule DMT has been consumed by shamans for thousands of years in Amazonia (primarily by snorting pulverized seeds) DMT was synthesized in the laboratory for the first time in 1971. The molecules existence in Amazonian shamanism wasn’t recognized until chemist Evan Horning and colleagues found it in the seeds and pods of yopo (Anadenathera peregrina). The molecule is famous for illuminating the inner worlds of people who consume the ayahuasca brew.
The ayahuasca vine itself does not tend to generate the hyper-psychedelic effects of DMT, LSD, Mescaline, Psilocybe mushrooms, and similar compounds. But this hasn’t stopped the ayahuasca vine from being revered across shamanic traditions as one of the main medicines and consciousness altering tools, alongside toe and tobacco. In ayahuasca brews in Amazonian shamanism, the DMT comes from admixture plants, such as Psychotria viridis, that are boiled with the “mother” or main plant: the ayahuasca vine.
In the 1920s, the German pharmacologist Louis Lewin conducted experiments with harmala extracts taken from the ayahuasca vine. He called the extracts banisterine. The chemical properties of the ayahuasca vine were fully discovered by 1957. Harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine were isolated from the B. caapi vine by researchers Hochstein and Paradies, setting a milestone in our understanding of the ayahuasca chemical structure.
By 1965, these compounds were firmly established as the active alkaloids of the plant and related species. The molecule previously named “telepathine” (also known as banisterine and yageine) was renamed to “harmine” after it was concluded that it has an identical molecular structure to the active compound of the plant Peganum harmala, which had already been known to science.
These alkaloids, collectively known as harmala alkaloids or harmalas, can induce the hypnagogic effects (half-awake dreams) that are produced by high doses of B. caapi, as well as the purging that can occur under the effects of ayahuasca. As monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), harmine and harmaline are also responsible for the anti-depressant effects of B. caapi, as well as potentiate many other compounds. The most well-known example is DMT, which becomes orally active after the MAO enzymes in the stomach lining are inhibited, a revelation confirmed by ethopharmacologist Dennis McKenna and colleagues.
Although not strongly psychoactive, the three harmalas that make up the ayahuasca chemical structure were eventually discovered to have distinct consciousness altering properties. Harmine induces a hypnagogic but clear-headed state of mind, tetrahydroharmine acts as a mood enhancer, while harmaline, the most potent of the three, causes a more intense sedative and disoriented state.
In a fascinating study conducted by Claudio Naranjo in 1987 it was shown that that harmaline can, on its own, induce visions that resemble those experienced during ayahuasca journeys. The motifs include images of birds, snakes, and big cats, and can occur in users who have lived their whole lives in the city and have had no prior experience with ayahuasca nor knowledge of the indigenous Amazonian lore.
As per the belief of indigenous Amazonians, some of whom traditionally brew ayahuasca just with the vine and without DMT-containing admixture plants, it’s possible that the powerful harmalas in the ayahuasca chemical structure actually already contain the visions within them. The DMT content would, in that case, act as an amplifier which brightens and clarifies the visions, or, how the indigenous say, “The vine is like a cave, and the leaf is like a torch you use to see what is inside the cave.”
At the turn of the 21st century, the scientific study of ayahuasca started to expand rapidly. Some of the most influential research projects included a positive analysis of safety of ayahuasca on humans, neuroscientists studying ayahuasca visions and brain function, and psychiatrists analyzing the long-term effects of ayahuasca on mental health. This type of research indicated that ayahuasca may help against a variety of mental health problems. The research coincided with the global popularization of the brew in the 1990s by philosopher Terence McKenna and anthropologist Jeremy Narby’s illuminating book The Cosmic Serpent. By 2015, groups started widely advertising ayahuasca ceremonies in the United States despite being illegal. Today, the brew continues to expand around the globe with retreat services offered across South America, North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere.
Javeed, M. et al 2018. Harmine and its derivatives: Biological activities and therapeutic potential in human diseases. Bangladesh Journal of Pharmacology Vol 13 No 3 (2018).
McKenna, D. J. (2006). Ayahuasca: An Ethnopharmacological History. In Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca (pp. 187–213). Rochester Vt.: Park Street Press.
Hochstein, F.A. & Paradies A. M. (1957) Alkaloids of Banisteriopsis caapi and Prestonia amazonica. Journal of American Chemical Society 79