The incidence rate of major depression in adolescents reaches approximately 14%. This disorder is usually recurrent, without remission of symptoms even after pharmacological treatment, and persists throughout adult life. Since the effects of antidepressants take approximately 2 weeks to begin, new pharmacological therapies are under continuous exploration. Recent evidence suggests that psychedelics could produce rapid antidepressant effects. In this study, we evaluated the potential antidepressant effects of ayahuasca in a juvenile non-human primate model of depression.
While living with their families, juvenile marmosets (8 males; 7 females) were observed on alternate days for four weeks during a baseline phase. This was followed by 8 weeks of an induced depressive state protocol, the social isolated context (IC), in which the animals were monitored in the first and last weeks. Subsequently, five males and four females were randomly selected for treatment, first with a single administration of saline vehicle (1.67 mL/300 g of body weight, via gavage), followed by a single dose of ayahuasca (1.67 mL/300 g of body weight, via gavage). Both phases lasted 1 week and the animals were monitored daily. A third week of sampling was called the tardive-pharmacological effects phase. In all phases the marmosets were assessed for behavior, fecal cortisol levels, and body weight.
After IC, the animals presented typical hypocortisolemia, but cortisol recovered to baseline levels 24 h after an acute dose of ayahuasca; this recovery was not observed in vehicle-treated animals. Additionally, in males, ayahuasca, but not the vehicle, reduced scratching, a stereotypic behavior, and increased feeding. Ayahuasca treatment also improved body weight to baseline levels in both sexes. The ayahuasca-induced behavioral response had long-term effects (14 days). Thus, in this translational juvenile animal model of depression, ayahuasca presented beneficial effects.
These results can contribute to the validation of ayahuasca as an antidepressant drug and encourage new studies on psychedelic drugs as a tool for treating mood disorders, including for adolescents with early-onset depression.