By Jan Ramaekers & Joost Breeksema
We are deeply saddened by the loss of pharmacologist dr. Jordi Riba, probably the most prominent psychedelic researcher in Catalunya and Spain, and a true pioneer in the biomedical study of ayahuasca.
Jordi was a true explorer who conducted his scientific quest for discovery and information in the same way 15thcentury discoverers explored territories on unknown continents: without navigation, but with great dedication and perseverance. He became intrigued by the effects of ayahuasca at a time when research into psychedelics was ignored by most of the scientific community, and actively opposed by governments in many countries. Despite these obstacles, he managed to bring ayahuasca to his Barcelona research clinic and published an unprecedented controlled, dose-ranging study on freeze-dried ayahuasca almost 20 years ago. Since then he has published close to 40 scientific research papers on ayahuasca, greatly advancing psychedelic research and significantly contributing to the re-emerging interest in therapeutic applications of psychedelics.
Jordi Riba was a prominent speaker at all previous editions of ICPR. The first time OPEN met with Jordi was in 2010, right before the Mind Altering Science conference. It was the first conference OPEN had ever organized. As novices in this field, we invited several experts, and to our own amazement, many of them, including Jordi, accepted our invitation. We even managed to find a hotel that would accommodate our speakers for free. Jordi Riba and his colleague José Carlos Bouso were the first to arrive in Amsterdam, and they headed directly to the hotel. Before long, they called us and stated politely but in no uncertain terms that thank you very much, we will not be staying here. Flabbergasted, we apologized and tried frantically to find an alternative hotel. Inexperienced as we were, we had not visited the hotel before accepting their offer, but sure enough, the “Hemp Hotel” was aimed at cannabis tourists; the shabby couches in the lobby were full of stoned tourists, the hemp smoke thick enough to cut with a knife, and the receptionist absolutely clueless that the hotel was reserved for our speakers. Luckily, we found them a decent hotel and by all accounts, the conference was a success. This anecdote was typical for Jordi – a polite and serious gentleman researcher from Spain who would not abide crappy hotels. He would go on to speak at all of our conferences throughout the years, and would have been present at ICPR 2020, had circumstances been different.
Looking back on fifteen years of ayahuasca research in an interview with OPEN, he shared many of the complexities – technically, culturally, and pharmacologically – of studying such a culturally embedded and variable plant mixture. To address some of these, he managed to create standardized, freeze-dried and encapsulated ayahuasca, which he administered to volunteers in various doses in his Barcelona lab. In addition to the pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics of ayahuasca, he used neuroimaging techniques to study the brew’s effects on humans, and used in vitro techniques to investigate the effects on a cellular level. At his last lecture at ICPR 2016, he presented ground-breaking findings, showing that the harmala alkaloids, harmine and tetrahydroharmine, induce neurogenesis, which not only provided further evidence that ayahuasca’s effects were due to more than just DMT, made available orally, but that the beta-carbolines present in the brew had important, therapeutically relevant effects of their own. It is unfortunate that throughout most of his career he conducted his research without much scientific support or resources while overall recognition of his work only emerged towards the end of his career. But Jordi accepted irony easily and embraced satire, as he was a man full of wit and humour. It’s quite telling that Don Quixote was among his favourite novels.
During the final years of his career Jordi resigned from Sant Pau Hospital while facing an existential crisis. He felt very lucky to be surrounded by warm-hearted family, friends and colleagues and had every intention to find his way back to academia. He loved the free haven of questioning and exploring minds, driven by curiosity, without prejudice, bias or agenda. Jordi Riba’s passing was sudden and tragic, and we can only remember his curiosity, scientific diligence and wry sense of humor with fondness. He will be sorely missed.