Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic botanical mixture originating in the Amazon area where it is used ritually, but is now being taken globally. The 2 main constituents of ayahuasca are N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a hallucinogen, and harmine, a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) which attenuates the breakdown of DMT, which would otherwise be broken down very quickly after oral consumption. Recent developments in ayahuasca use include the sale of these compounds on the internet and the substitution of related botanical (anahuasca) or synthetic (pharmahuasca) compounds to achieve the same desired hallucinogenic effects. One intriguing result of ayahuasca use appears to be improved mental health and a reduction in recidivism to alternate (alcohol, cocaine) drug use. In this review we discuss the pharmacology of ayahuasca, with a focus on harmine, and suggest pharmacological mechanisms for the putative reduction in recidivism to alcohol and cocaine misuse. These pharmacological mechanisms include MAOI, effects at 5-HT2A and imidazoline receptors and inhibition of dual-specificity tyrosine-phosphorylation regulated kinase 1A (DYRK1A) and the dopamine transporter. We also speculate on the therapeutic potential of harmine in other CNS conditions.
► We reviewed the use of the Amazonian hallucinogen ayahuasca and its analogues. ► The review focuses on harmine, a beta-carboline and major component of ayahuasca. ► Recent research on the pharmacology of harmine is explored in detail. ► Findings are discussed in the context of ayahuasca's use in drug dependence. ► Pharmacokinetic and adverse drug interactions of harmine are also discussed.