It’s not news that psychedelic compounds like LSD and psilocybin are demonstrating effectiveness in treating conditions like depression, anxiety, or PTSD. How does this happen? According to some new studies, LSD and other psychedelic drugs can trigger an unprecedented ‘harmonic’ reorganization of the brain.
Researchers are still working to uncover the full healing potential of psychedelics, which can reset the brain connections of patients suffering from several mental health issues. For people struggling with these illnesses, the opportunity to ‘reset’ their brain has potentially life-changing benefits.
LSD and the Brain
In a study published in Scientific Reports in 2017, researchers analyzed MRI data from 12 participants who were observed on LSD and a placebo. They claimed that this technique could provide insights into how and why psychedelics alter the way the brain functions. When patients were treated with LSD, their brain scans showed a “harmony of functional waves across various areas in a way that was not random.” This means that under the influence of LSD, participants’ neural processes became connected to areas of the brain that were normally less active or dormant, and it did so in a way that indicated that it was reorganizing itself.
The researchers noted that the brains’ reorganization processes stopped when the LSD’s effects wore off, but they also found that some minimal brain resetting effects remained in the subjects’ neural connections. This persistent activity, however small, offered some relief from whatever mental disorder they were suffering from. While the results were positive, the sample was small and the research will still have to determine with greater accuracy just how beneficial the therapeutic effects of psychedelic drugs are before physicians begin to think of incorporating LSD into their regular practice.
Psilocybin at Imperial College
Just like LSD, psilocybin, the active compound in what is popularly known as magic mushrooms has also been found to ‘reset’ the brains of people with conditions like depression. A small study conducted by Imperial College London sought to understand the effects of psilocybin on treatment-resistant depression using fMRI.
Nineteen patients with diagnoses of treatment-resistant major depression completed pre-treatment and one-day post-treatment fMRI scanning. They were all given a single dose of psilocybin, which quickly produced and sustained antidepressant effects. Half of patients even completely ceased exhibiting symptoms of depression, and experienced changes in their brain activity that lasted about five weeks.
Decreases in cerebral blood flow (CBF) were observed post treatment, and these reached statistical significance in the left Heschl’s gyrus, left precentral gyrus, left planum temporale, left superior temporal gyrus, left amygdala, right supramarginal gyrus and right parietal operculum. Based on previous findings of increased amygdala blood flow and metabolism in depression, reductions in amygdala CBF were compared with the reductions in depressive symptoms and a significant relationship was found.
This means that the study showed that psilocybin affected two key areas of the brain. First, the amygdala — an area of the brain which is heavily involved in how we process emotions such as fear and anxiety — which became less active. The greater the reduction, the greater the improvement in depression symptoms. The other area of the brain that was affected was the default-mode network. This is a collaboration of different brain regions which became more stable after the psilocybin administration.
This and other studies suggest that psilocybin could work effectively against depression by acting as a “lubricant of the mind” that allows people to escape the cycle of depression. However, the precise impact on the brain is not yet fully understood. The study was also very small, and did not include a control group of healthy participants with whom to compare the brain scans. Further, larger studies are still needed.
Long Lasting Change
While conventional drugs may numb negative feelings and emotions, psychedelics seem to allow people to approach difficult experiences and feelings fully digest them. According to Dr. Will Siu, who owns a private practice in which he provides ketamine-assisted therapy, the most powerful thing about psychedelics is that they work for suppressed trauma. Healing with psychedelics evokes the emotions and the memories that have not been processed.
Psychedelics can also intensify the connection a patient has with their therapist, which is just as critical to healing than the type of therapy being done. These substances flood the brain with hormones and neurotransmitters that evoke feelings of trust. Set and setting are also key. Set is short for mindset and setting is the physical and social environment in which the drugs are consumed. Set and setting, when combined with psychedelics, allow patients to re-visit traumatic memories with a level of safety. Psychedelic-assisted therapy also puts a limit on an overactive emotional response to the source of trauma. In practical terms, this means that people are able to control the trauma without being triggered by it, due to dissociation.
It’s not just the direct effects of psychedelics on the brain that make the treatment so powerful, it is the combination of the substance with the reduced reactivity and the connection formed with the therapist that increases the self-empathy which is crucial for healing. More research is needed in order to fully understand what psychedelics do to the depressed brain, but so far it seems like it’s likely this combination of factors that make the treatment effective.