A new study will seek to discover if ayahuasca is effective at helping a group of Middle Eastern and North African refugees, primarily women, to heal from trauma. While previous research has examined the effectiveness of ayahuasca for trauma, it hasn’t touched this population from a region of the world that has seen much warfare and and suffering.
Maleek Asfeer, a Saudi Arabian filmmaker now based in Colorado, organized an ayahuasca ceremony and reached out to the researchers to offer them the chance to collect data on it. The study was approved by the FDA and is being conducted in accordance with HIPAA patient privacy rules.
“There’s been a lot of misrepresentation or lack of representation of refugees and immigrants, or even people of color, in the psychedelic research space, so [Asfeer] wanted to bring a voice to his community,” Matthew Lowe, the study’s principal investigator, told Filter. Lowe clarified that the participants are not currently endangered, and have homes and support networks.
It’s measuring outcomes like depression, anxiety, personality changes and quality of life.
The study is being conducted by Unlimited Sciences, a psychedelic research nonprofit. The group announced the research, which is supported by crowdfunding, on August 2. Its participants have already taken part in the ayahuasca ceremony, which incorporated traditional South American practices. The plant-based brew, long used in Indigenous cultures of the Amazon basin, contains the active psychedelic ingredient DMT.
Lowe explained that the ceremony was conducted in a real-world setting, following a mix of traditions. “Each teacher takes that work and makes it their own,” he said. “The teachings are an amalgamation of [those of] a number of different tribes from South America. The practice was done in a deeply traditional aspect; many of the songs were sung in Quechua.” Indigenous Quechuan languages are native to the Andean region of South America.
This study is closely modeled after a previous psilocybin study the researchers ran, which has not yet published data. Like that one, the ayahuasca study is measuring outcomes related to health and wellbeing like depression, anxiety, personality changes, quality of life, substance use, and feelings of spirituality or mysticism. The ayahuasca study took a baseline survey of participants two weeks before the ceremony, then another on the day of the ceremony. Researchers followed up one-to-three days after the ceremony, then again at two weeks, and will finally do so again three months afterwards.
Besides completing health surveys, participants are also sharing their firsthand experiences directly in conversations with researchers. The participants will also receive “integration” or support from trained therapists for up to a year after the ceremony. The researchers expect to complete data collection in the fall, and to publish results in 2023.
One academic psychedelic organization has criticized this ayahuasca study, however, for not currently revealing details the cultural practices involved in the ceremony.
“This shows that biomedical scientists, even when in their best efforts to take into account the ‘setting,’ do still appear to downplay its role and consider all of the settings interchangeable,” Bia Labate, cofounder of the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines, told Double Blind. “From the point of view of those that drink ayahuasca, the setting matters tremendously.”
“Our first and foremost obligation is to protect the participants. We were absolutely not going to reveal any information that could betray their identity.”
Lowe defended the decision to not disclose these details. “Our first and foremost obligation is to protect the participants,” he said. “These are a number of refugees and immigrants who are not only targeted by their local governments but also their home governments. We were absolutely not going to reveal any information that could betray their identity.”
Labate also questioned who will own the data from the research, and whether Unlimited Sciences plans to use it to develop and market medicine. Lowe told Filter that the researchers are not developing any medicine and that the study’s goals are purely educational.
He also cautioned that the study findings should not be generalized to all ayahuasca experiences, as this is a very specific population with a unique background. Going forward, he added, Unlimited Sciences plans to develop a broader study to research outcomes across larger groups of people and even across different psychedelics, like LSD, MDMA or ketamine.
Whether ayahuasca is proving transformative for the refugees in the study—which would raise the welcome prospect of other people in comparable circumstances being able to benefit—has yet to be reported. Stronger data about how psychedelics affect people can also have policy consequences, as cities and states across the US consider loosening or repealing criminal laws around these drugs. Scientific findings of the therapeutic potential of psychedelics have helped to pierce decades of drug-war stigma and unite unlikely allies, even if the process can feel painstakingly slow.
“Policy should be done responsibly by gathering an enormous amount of data,” Lowe said. “I think a lot of policy often isn’t driven that way and is driven by emotional movement but it should be, and what we’re trying to do is contribute as much data as we can.”
Update 08/20/2022: An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that Bia Labate criticized the study for not disclosing the location of the study. It has been corrected.