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Botanical Research at "Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century"

From April 15-19, 2010, over 1,200 scientists, ethnobotanists, physicians, therapists, anthropologists, artists, and citizens from more than 20 countries convened in San Jose, California, to discuss the current state of research into psychedelic (“mind-manifesting”) substances, including many psychoactive botanicals. The largest conference in the United States to focus entirely on psychedelic science in 40 years, “Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century” was presented by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in collaboration with the Heffter Research Institute, the Council on Spiritual Practices, and the Beckley Foundation. The conference included nearly 100 presentations, ranging from the psychopharmacology and clinical applications of psychedelic substances to anthropological studies of indigenous healing practices. Nearly 200 physicians and other medical practitioners received Continuing Medical Education (CME) or Continuing Education (CE) credits for their participation.

Although much of the conference centered on synthetic psychedelics such as MDMA and LSD, more than a third of the presentations discussed botanicals. Salvia divinorum (Lamiaceae) and pituri (a preparation of Duboisia hopwoodii [Solanaceae]) received only minor attention, while psychoactive fungi (e.g., Psilocybe cubensis [Strophariaceae] and Amanita muscaria [Pluteaceae]), ayahuasca (a preparation of Banisteriopsis caapi [Malpighiaceae] and Psychotria viridis [Rubiaceae]), and ibogaine (the primary alkaloid from Tabernanthe iboga, Apocynaceae) were the primary focus. While many presenters addressed the uses of psychedelics for specific psychiatric and biomedical conditions, others discussed their use as tools for basic research into the complex relationship between psychopharmacology and conscious experience. Linking them was an enthusiasm for the return of psychedelics to mainstream scientific and medical research since its suppression 4 decades ago.

Psilocybin Research

A significant portion of the conference addressed psychoactive fungi. The majority of these focused on psilocybin, a naturally-occurring psychedelic tryptamine found in hundreds of fungus species. Outstanding was a series of studies of psilocybin for relieving anxiety related to life-threatening cancer. These studies, one recently completed by Charles Grob, MD, and colleagues at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and another ongoing by Roland Griffiths, MD, and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, both showed promising results. A third study is underway at New York University, but it is too early for a presentation of the results. Christopher Wiegand, MD, and colleagues presented another major study exploring the safety and efficacy of psilocybin for the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The growing number and success of these and other studies suggest that (as long as funding is available) the mainstream availability of such treatments for anxiety, OCD, and even cluster headaches may become a reality in the next couple of decades.

While clinical studies of psilocybin stole the show, conference attendees also learned about research into its basic pharmacology and cognitive effects. For example, Robin Carhart-Harris, PhD, revealed the preliminary results of an fMRI study of the effects of intravenous psilocybin on brain activation and blood flow. Other presentations discussed the effects of psilocybin on hippocampal neurogenesis and learning in mouse models and the mechanisms underlying psilocybin’s cognitive effects.

Ayahuasca Research

Even the conference organizers were surprised at the amount of research into the use of ayahuasca as a sacrament in contemporary Brazilian religious movements, a possible treatment for drug addiction in Western medical contexts, and a potential tool for improving overall psychospiritual health. The volume of this research prompted MAPS to organize an entire track of presentations centered on the pharmacological, religious, medical, and social aspects of ayahuasca use.

Ayahuasca is a botanical decoction traditionally used in ritual settings by indigenous Amazonian and Andean communities. It contains a number of psychoactive compounds including the psychedelic alkaloid N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and several monoamine oxidase-inhibiting harmines (MAOIs). The recent worldwide surge of interest in ayahuasca from ethnobotanists, the media, and medical practitioners has led to a proliferation of research into the possible addition of ayahuasca to the Western pharmacopeia—and much of this research was presented for the first time at the conference.

Ayahuasca is only beginning to attract the attention of biochemists and psychopharmacologists. Jordi Riba, PhD, and colleagues’ study of the pharmacology of ayahuasca in healthy volunteers is among those at the forefront of this trend. Riba’s investigation of the effects of ayahuasca using such techniques as blood monitoring and electroencephalography (EEG) caused particular excitement among attendees, especially since the vast majority of current ayahuasca research is being done by anthropologists and clinical practitioners. Also notable was a presentation by Nicholas Cozzi, PhD, of recently published research into endogenous DMT, suggesting how research on ayahuasca and similar substances has something to teach us about basic neurophysiology.

Anthropological studies of ayahuasca use in non-Western and indigenous contexts focus primarily on the Brazilian syncretic religions based on the ritual use of ayahuasca, and vegetalismo, an indigenous shamanic practice in the Peruvian Amazon. For example, Paulo Barbosa, PhD, discussed a longitudinal study of the effects of ayahuasca rituals in 2 Brazilian churches (Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal) suggesting that ritual ayahuasca use is correlated with improved overall physical and psychological health. Others addressed the specific components of indigenous ayahuasca use such as singing and sexuality.

Much of the research explored ayahuasca as a treatment for drug addiction, including alcoholism. One highlight was an observational study of Peruvian and Brazilian ayahuasca therapy centers by Beatriz Caiuby Labate, PhDc, Brian Anderson, and colleagues. They suggested that the effectiveness of these programs derives from their careful combination of traditional and contemporary healing practices. The importance of hybrid and integrative approaches to addiction treatment was a common thread in the ayahuasca track, suggesting that research on ayahuasca and other psychoactive botanical substances could prompt reconsiderations of the very nature of medical and psychiatric practice.

Ibogaine Research

Ibogaine is a powerful naturally-occurring psychoactive alkaloid found in the African iboga plant traditionally used as a sacrament in West African Bwiti religious ceremonies. Despite its prohibited status in the United States, it has recently received much attention from ethnobotanists and alternative medicine practitioners as a powerful “addiction interrupter” for severe and intractable drug (especially opiate) dependence. [Editor’s note: A brief history of the attempts to study ibogaine for its potential benefits in drug addiction is given in the obituary of Howard Lotsof on page 74 of this issue.]

Basic research into the pharmacology of ibogaine is just now emerging to complement the proliferation of case reports of the risks and efficacy of ibogaine treatment. All of the research and therapies discussed at the conference agreed that no drug—especially ibogaine— can be expected to work miracles. Rather, effective treatment requires therapists to consider addiction in both physical and psychological terms and to create therapeutic environments that give patients the cognitive and emotional tools necessary for sustained recovery.

Of particular interest were presentations about Pangea Biomedics, an ibogaine treatment center in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico. Clinic director Clare Wilkins highlighted the importance of integrated therapy (combining biochemical, psychological, and spiritual approaches) for the Pangea program. Tom Kingsley Brown, PhD, presented the protocol of a MAPS-sponsored longitudinal study of addiction and quality of life in patients treated at the clinic and discussed the advantages—such as cost, treatment length, and expected outcome—that ibogaine treatment may have over addiction replacement therapies such as methadone and naloxone.


What may be a new paradigm in medical science was palpable at “Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century,” and it is a certainty that there will be more gatherings like it in the future. Despite the incredible amount of information shared and connections made during the 4-day conference, it was clear by the end that psychedelic science is still in its infancy. Decades of prohibition and cultural suspicion of these substances appear to be shifting toward a more accepting and (some would argue) objective approach to research on psychoactive substances, particularly those from botanicals.

Brad Burge is a writer and editor for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, as well as a PhD student at the University of California, San Diego.