An estimated half of Australia’s population will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime, and scientists are turning to an unlikely place in the search for treatment.
Monash University researchers scanned the brains of healthy adults under the influence of psychedelic drugs. They aim to identify the pathways in the brain that underlie the effects of these substances in order to build an understanding of how different parts of the brain are connected as a whole.
PsiConnect (consisting of Psilocybin, Connectivity and Context) is the first psychedelic participant imaging trial in Australia and with 60 participants is one of the largest psychedelic imaging trials worldwide.
There are many types of psychedelics derived from various plants, animals and fungi. When a person takes a psychoactive substance, there is a temporary reorganization of brain connectivity that alters perception. It can cause hallucinations and alter self-perception.
Counterintuitively, psychedelic-induced perceptual distortions can have a positive effect in clinical patients with dysfunctional thought forms—such as self-limiting beliefs and pervasive pessimism.
By temporarily deconstructing perception in the context of therapy, psychedelics can help people find alternative ways to improve their self-perception and belief.
It was these changes that revived interest in the therapeutic potential of psychoactive substances.
While some researchers argue that psychedelic therapeutic effects arise from the experience of altered consciousness, others suggest that this may not be the case and seek to separate the therapeutic effects from the psychoactive experience.
It is possible that both the non-psychoactive and psychoactive properties of these substances contribute to their therapeutic effectiveness.
However, before psychedelics are used to treat a specific mental health diagnosis, some potential problems must be addressed.
For example, psychedelics can be harmful to people who have a genetic predisposition to psychosis. Rigorous scientific research is needed if psychedelics are to be integrated into publicly available therapy in a realistic, safe, and sustainable manner.
At Monash University’s Computational Neuroscience Laboratory, an ongoing psychedelic imaging trial uses synthetic psilocybin – the magical ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’ – supplied by the Usona Institute, a medical research organisation.
The trial used a fixed dose of 19 mg, an amount based on previous studies and researchers’ recommendations to reliably produce psychedelic effects of psilocybin at a level generally well tolerated by healthy adults, regardless of gender or body weight.
Participants had two sessions of brain scans at the Biomedical Imaging Facility at Monash, one before and one after psilocybin. They take the drug as a pill in a comfortable non-clinical setting at the Turner Institute’s BrainPark, in the company of the researcher, study physician and support staff. Most people begin to feel the effects of psilocybin about an hour later, so the scan begins.
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First, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) takes high-resolution pictures of the entire brain, including deep subcortical parts, and measures how this activity changes over time. Researchers also use an electroencephalograph (EEG) after MRI because it can measure millisecond changes in brain connectivity, albeit with much lower (spatial) resolution.
The study also investigated how context played a role in psilocybin’s effects by providing different music while the scan was taking place. Researchers will ultimately inform participants to better understand perceptual mechanisms by linking subjective reports to observed changes.
Researchers have so far found wide variation in participants’ experiences. Some participants report melting and shifting patterns while their eyes are open; others report no visual changes.
Some report purely bodily experiences, while others describe accounts of mystical journeys. Some revealed a sense of integration and dissolved the separation between self and environment, leading to euphoria; while others experienced these changes with varying emotions.
At this early stage, research suggests that the quality, rather than the intensity, of experiences with psilocybin may be more important for psychological changes.
Over time, the work hopes to better understand the biological factors that determine the psychedelic response to a given dose, and how mindset and tuning can be optimized to aid therapeutic outcomes.
Ultimately, asking volunteers to take psilocybin for science can help us better understand the brain and how the brain allows us to understand ourselves and the world.
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Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.