Can the psychedelic drug ayahuasca help fight suicide?

Scientists are beginning to examine whether the psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca can help reduce suicide risk. But the first study to examine the topic has found inconclusive results. The research has been accepted for publication in Frontiers in Pharmacology.

Ayahuasca, a psychedelic concoction used for centuries by indigenous Amazon tribes, contains the powerful psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

“Suicide is one of the leading causes of death, accounting for nearly 1 million deaths each year,” said study author Richard Zeifman, a PhD student in Clinical Psychology at Ryerson University.

“Current interventions for suicidality have important limitations, which means there is a need for developing and identifying novel interventions for suicidality. Given this need, as well as research indicating that ayahuasca shows promise as an intervention for various mental health concerns (e.g., depression), we were interested in exploring whether the positive therapeutic effects of ayahuasca extended to suicidality.”

The researchers conducted a secondary analysis on data from a randomized placebo-controlled trial, which was published in Psychological Medicine in 2019. The study provided preliminary evidence that the psychedelic brew had rapid antidepressant effects.

“When administered within the appropriate context, and with proper preparation, the psychoactive brew ayahuasca may show promise as an intervention for suicidality,” Zeifman told PsyPost.

In the study, 29 participants with treatment-resistant depression and no history of psychotic disorders were randomly assigned to undergo a single treatment session, in which they were given either ayahuasca or a placebo substance to drink. None of the participants had prior experience using psychedelics.

A trained psychiatrist assessed suicidality before the treatment session, as well as 1 day, 2 days, and 7 days afterward.

Zeifman and his colleagues found ayahuasca had a medium to large effect on suicidality, but this effect was not statistically significant. In other words, it is possible that ayahuasca may not lead to decreases in suicidality.

However, it is also possible that ayahuasca does reduce suicidality, but the study lacked the power to reach statistical significance because there were not enough participants. The effect sizes suggest the topic warrants further consideration, the researchers said.

“Our study is characterized by a number of important limitations, including a small sample size, exclusion of individuals that were acutely suicidal, and short-term follow-up (i.e., 7 days after administration). Ultimately, it will be import for future research to use larger samples, as well as examine the safety and effectiveness of ayahuasca as an intervention for individuals with acute levels of suicidality,” Zeifman said.

“These findings help to extend past research on the potential therapeutic benefits associated with ayahuasca. Nonetheless, our findings are preliminary and suggest that there is an important need for additional research exploring the potential therapeutic benefits associated with ayahuasca.”

The study, “The Impact of Ayahuasca on Suicidality: Results from a Randomized Controlled Trial“, was authored by Richard Zeifman, Fernanda Palhano-Fontes, Jaime Hallak, Emerson A. Nunes, João Paulo Maia-de-Oliveira, and Draulio B. de Araujo.