Psychedelic research: the next steps in the study of the brain
As ‘magic mushroom season’ gets underway, Ashley Murphy takes an alternative, more serious look at ongoing the psychedelic research surrounding them.
Magic mushrooms are being used to “reset” the minds of depressed people.
Supervised by experts from the Imperial College London, 20 volunteers with histories of depression were given two doses of psilocybin, a naturally occurring compound that makes mushrooms ‘magic’.
The volunteers also underwent two MRI scans. The first was carried out before the psilocybin was administered and the second was taken a day after treatment. Experts used both images to measure changes in blood flow in the brain, as well as neural connections between the left and right hemispheres. The images revealed a reduced blood flow in an area of the brain called the amygdala, a small, nut-shaped region responsible for ‘negative’ emotional responses, such as stress and fear.
On the contrary, activity in both hemispheres of the brain increased, and the left and right side appeared to be ‘talking’ to each other. But it wasn’t just psycho-babble – according to one of the researchers: “The brain does not simply become a random system after a psilocybin injection,” they wrote, “but instead retains some organizational features, albeit different from the normal state.”
The patients were asked to fill out clinical questionnaires, and the vast reported a marked improvement in their mental health which lasted up to five weeks.
One of the men behind the study, Professor David Nutt, suggests that depressed people are ‘locked’ into negative types of thinking. He believes that self-criticism and other neurotic forms of thinking are deeply ingrained habits generated by neural pathways in the brain. Psilocybin, it seems, breaks the pre-establish patterns, allowing news one to form in their place.
Dr. Robin Carhart Harris is head of the study. He said: “Several of our patients described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment and often used computer analogies. For example, one said he felt like his brain had been ‘defragged’ like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt ‘rebooted’.
“Psilocybin may be giving these individuals the temporary ‘kick start’ they need to break out of their depressive states and these imaging results do tentatively support a ‘reset’ analogy.”
Similar research was done at John Hopkins University. 80 patients with advanced cancer were given a single high hose of psilocybin and then asked to reflect on their experience during psychotherapy sessions. The results were nothing less than profound. Around 80% reported a marked improvement in their mental health that lasted up to eight months, and many spoke of meaningful and spiritual experiences which helped them come to terms with their own mortality.
During follow up interviews, two-thirds said it had been one of the most important experiences in their lives. Nick Fernandez, a former cancer patient and study volunteer, said: “For the first time in my life, I felt like there was… a force greater than myself. Something inside me snapped and I experienced a… shift that made me realize all my anxieties, defences, and insecurities weren’t something to worry about.”
Psychedelic research was popular during the 1950s and early 60s. Many experts believed that substances like LSD and psilocybin could help relieve depression and anxiety. But their work was halted in 1970, when the US Government classed LSD as a schedule 1 drug, meaning it had no medical use. The decision was largely due to the wide-spread moral panic of the 60s counterculture, and it shut down psychedelic research for the next 50 years.
However, Professor Nutt welcomes the return to serious research: “It’s time to take psychedelic treatments in psychiatry and oncology seriously, as we did in the 1950s and 1960s…the key point is that all agree we are now in an exciting new phase of psychedelic psychopharmacology that needs to be encouraged not impeded.”
Others from outside the ‘Academies’ are starting to spread the word on psychedelic research. Tim Ferris is an American author, public speaker, and tech investor who recently made a significant financial contribution to MAPS (The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies). A recent episode of his popular podcast was titled “The Tim Ferriss Show: Are Psychedelic Drugs the Next Medical Breakthrough?” Micheal Pollan is an American journalist and science writer; he recently published a book called How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
Other popular advocates of psychedelic research include author Sam Harris, Podcast host Joe Rogan, and Vice TV host Hamilton Morris.
Scientists have only scratched the surface of psychedelic research. If left alone, this important work could vastly improve our understanding of depression, anxiety, and provide insights into the origins of human consciousness.
Next time, Ashley discusses the legalities of ‘magic mushrooms’ and how they relate to individual choice and freedom.
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