1984 – Scientists Confirm the MAOIs of the Ayahuasca Vine Make DMT Orally Active
In the 1850s, an English botanist by the name of Richard Spruce studied ayahuasca among indigenous groups of the Amazon. He suggested that the profound effects of the brew are probably the result of additional plants being added to the mix, and his intuition was correct.
Today, it’s well known that when the dazzling molecule DMT (which is responsible for the profound psychedelic effects of ayahuasca) is drunk, it can only enter the bloodstream with the help of special molecules that are in the ayahuasca vine. Drinking the vine on its own doesn’t inspire the vivid visions that many soul-seekers desire.
In a landmark study conducted in 1984, ethno-pharmacologist Dennis McKenna (brother of Terence McKenna) and colleagues Towers and Abbott performed chemical analyses on samples of ayahuasca, showing for the first time the connected nature of DMT and ayahuasca. They found that DMT was orally active due to monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) in ayahuasca; more simply put, this meant that the ayahuasca vine makes it possible for the psychedelic properties in the chacruna (DMT) leaves to enter the blood and reach the brain.
Although not the first chemical analysis of ayahuasca, this study found considerably higher levels of both DMT and ayahuasca vine alkaloids, called β-carbolines (MAOIs), than those found previously. The key finding of the study was that ayahuasca on the whole, but mainly the vine portion of the brew (B. caapi), is a highly effective MAOI. It allows the DMT molecules in the admixture plants (Psychotria viridis, Psychotria carthagenensis, and Diplopterys cabrerana were tested) to avoid being degraded by enzymes in the gut.
While DMT tends to get most of the attention in the bourgeoning ayahuasca scene around the globe today, the harmal alkaloids in the ayahuasca vine have a rich history in science. They were first isolated by scientists from the Eurasian plant Syrian Rue in the 1840s, then in the early twentieth century the German pharmacologist Louis Lewin conducted various experiments on the ayahuasca extracts. This included early research into the possible therapeutic effects of ayahuasca vine extract on Parkinson’s Disease.
Scientific research about ayahuasca started to increase rapidly during the 1990s and beyond. This included scientific research on the safety of ayahuasca, how ayahuasca visions activate the brain like normal vision, the long-term effects of ayahuasca on health, how the brain on ayahuasca and meditation behave similar to each other; and a landmark study on the anti-depressant effects of ayahuasca. The burst in scientific studies in the 1990s coincided with the global popularizing of ayahuasca by the books and lectures of philosopher Terence McKenna, and by anthropologist Jeremy Narby’s book The Cosmic Serpent. By 2015, ayahuasca ceremonies in the United States were being advertised widely online 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.
McKenna, D. J., Towers, G. N., & Abbott, F. (1984). Monoamine oxidase inhibitors in South American hallucinogenic plants: tryptamine and β-carboline constituents of ayahuasca. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 10(2), 195-223.