A well-known public health campaign once said that drugs do nothing but fry the brains of people who use them. But more and more research suggests that psychedelics may help clear up the mind, which could lead to big improvements in mental health. Scientists have mostly given up on the egghead theory and are now trying to figure out how these drugs that change your mind can be used to help people.
Based on what we know now, it seems like psychedelics might be able to help with conditions like depression and addiction. However, it is not clear whether this is because of the psychedelic experience itself or because the brain is better able to rewire itself after a trip.
Dr. Rosalind Watts, clinical lead of the famous Imperial College London study on psilocybin for depression, asked IFLScience to sum up this interesting psychedelic puzzle: “Is it a brain reset or a turbo-charged therapeutic experience? Different patients will respond differently if you ask them.
A “Brain Defrag”
Patients in Watts’s study all had severe depression that didn’t respond to treatment. However, when they were given psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms, they got better quickly and for good. Six months later, Watts and her colleagues talked to the participants about their experiences. Several of them talked about a mental “defrag,” which Watts and her colleagues noted.
One patient said, “The reset button was pushed so everything would work right,” and another said, “I felt like my brain was turned on again.” Another person said that the effect was “like defragmenting the hard drive on a computer,” and they said they could see their mind being “put in order.”
Brain scans of people being treated for depression with psilocybin have shown that the drug does seem to completely reset and rearrange certain nerve pathways that are strongly linked to the condition.
In the last chapter of this series, we talked about how psychedelics break up a brain network called the default mode network (DMN). However, scans taken a day after treatment show that the DMN is more connected, which shows that it comes back online with more energy once the effects of the drug wear off.
The authors of the study said of this neurological phenomenon, “This process might be likened to a “reset” mechanism in which acute modular disintegration (e.g. in the DMN) allows subsequent re-integration and normal functioning to resume.”
Separate research has shown that a single dose of ayahuasca can make the connections between brain cells more fluid and flexible for up to a few weeks, which can improve mental health in the long run. This effect has been called “psychedelic afterglow,” and it has been linked to a greater ability to be mindful after drinking the strong Amazonian drink.
Watts says that clinical improvements tend to happen “when there’s a beautiful confluence of afterglow, which is a physiological brain flexibility, and having had a deeply therapeutic experience.” So it works on both the neurological level and the psychological level.”
New nerve cells?
Research has shown that psychedelics may not fry your brain, but instead cause new neurons and synapses to form. This means that you could end up with more brain cells after taking acid. This hasn’t been proven in real people yet, but a shocking study on mice found that ayahuasca caused new neurons to grow in the hippocampus.
Given how important this part of the brain is for learning and remembering, this could be a huge discovery for psychiatry. People think that psychedelics could help people recover from depression, anxiety, addiction, and other mental conditions by making new neurons in this key structure. This would allow people to change how they think and how they think about things.
When applied to rat neurons in a test tube, very small amounts of the psychedelic drug DMT are enough to cause a 40% increase in the number of connections between neurons. This could have effects on mental health, but it also led to the idea that psychedelics could help stop or fix brain damage after strokes and other brain injuries.
How about The Psychedelic Experience?
Intriguingly, this huge increase in neuronal connections was caused by a dose of DMT that was too small to cause any changes in consciousness. This supports the idea that psychedelics might help the brain rewire itself without having to go on mind-bending trips. This ability to change the way connections are made in the brain is called “neuroplasticity,” and it is strongly linked to improvements in mental health.
Researchers at the University of California, Davis, are trying to make a drug that has the same healing effects as classic psychedelics without triggering the 5-HT2A receptor, which is responsible for the changes in consciousness that these drugs are known for. Their work has already shown that neuroplasticity can be improved and depression and addiction can be lessened in mice without giving them a trip. This suggests that psychedelic experiences may not be necessary for emotional healing.
Some patients may be nervous about going through a mental wormhole, so psychedelics that don’t make them feel high would be a lot more appealing to them. But it’s also important to remember that humans are more psychologically complex than both mice and test tubes. Until psychedelics have been tested more on real people, it’s not safe to make any assumptions about how well they work in the clinic.
In a sad study with cancer patients nearing the end of their lives, psilocybin was found to reduce anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness by a lot, and these effects lasted for years. Importantly, the positive effects were strongly linked to the psychedelic experience itself. For example, one participant said that their renewed sense of positivity came from feeling “overwhelming love” while on the drug.
In psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, other studies have shown how important “ego dissolution” and “mystical experiences” are. For example, mystical experiences have been linked to a decrease in depression after treatment with the compound 5-MeO-DMT. In the psilocybin study, several participants talked about how the destruction of their ego helped them feel more connected to the world.
One patient stated, “This sense of connectedness, that we are all connected, is nothing short of miraculous. I liked nature before [psilocybin], but now I feel like I’m a part of it, according to another.
Watts claims, “Depression and suffering, I believe, are becoming increasingly linked to the ego consciousness of the separate self—the unsafe, insecure, separate self. But when the ego breaks down, even if it’s not completely, and [patients] feel connected to everything else, that’s what really helps them get better.
Dealing with Feelings
Interviews with people who took psilocybin for the study showed that their emotions became stronger. Many people said that their depression went along with a feeling of “numbness,” and that after years of missing the richness of life, their psychedelic experiences filled them with feelings.
One person who took psilocybin said, “I was crying, tears were coming out of me,” but that “it wasn’t painful crying, it was like turning on the taps.”
When the participants in this study took psilocybin, the activity in their amygdalas went up. This may explain why they felt so emotional. Traditional antidepressants, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), on the other hand, are known to slow down activity in the amygdala, which could make it harder to process emotions.
By waking up affective processing in this key limbic brain area, psychedelics seem to help people get over depression by giving them back their ability to feel instead of keeping it down.
Even though psychedelics seem to turn on a number of things that may be good for mental health, it’s important to remember that none of these things are the same as healing. Instead, through their effects on the brain and mind, these substances help to create conditions that are good for health, which opens the door for therapy.
Integration is the process of turning these short-term changes and experiences into long-term mental improvements. Many experts believe that integration is the key to psychedelic therapy. Watts claims that if psychedelics aren’t integrated, “they don’t change anything, so I think integration is literally everything.”
She is getting ready to start a year-long psychedelics integration programme that will focus on building community and getting in touch with nature. She says that the real beauty of these psychoactive compounds is that they make us want to connect with each other. “Psychedelics are how you get in. They let people be more emotional, in touch with nature, and in touch with themselves, she claims, by opening the door.
They give us more freedom, but now we must create institutions that enable teamwork.