Thursday, July 18, 2024

Neuroscience unveils the effect of psychedelics on the brain

In the ongoing search for effective approaches to mental disorders, neuroscience is turning its attention to the reasons why people describe psychedelic experiences as profoundly transformative events that produce enduring positive changes in mood and behavior. 

Though researchers are still uncovering the full healing potential of psychedelics, some have found that the mind-altering experiences induced by substances like psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca and 5-MeO-DMT provide a way to overcome various mental health issues by resetting brain connections. 

The term psychedelic derives from the Greek words “psyche,” meaning soul or mind, and “deloun,” meaning “to manifest.” In essence, psychedelics are “mind manifesting,” and users describe their potential to illuminate hidden aspects of the human psyche. 

Psychedelics are emerging as therapeutic tools to aid in understanding the intricacies of the mind with promising applications for improving mental health. One of the most notable aspects is that, unlike psychiatric medications, a single psychedelic experience provides noticeable results and most cases don’t require any further intake. 

As reported by the Heroic Hearts Project, an institution that provides psychedelic retreats to US veterans suffering from severe PTSD: ”Fewer than 10% of veterans complete or experience significant improvement using traditional treatments. Preliminary independent research of HHP’s psychedelic programs suggests that over 80% of veterans experience improvement after participating in just one of our psychedelic programs.”

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies, which measure changes in blood flow corresponding to brain activity, are being used to understand the effects that psychedelic experiences have at the neurological level. Particularly intriguing is the evidence showing that these experiences temporarily reduce activity in the default mode network (DMN). 

Often referred to as the “sense of self” network, this area of the brain plays a pivotal role in shaping our identity. The default mode network is essentially in charge of our thoughts when we aren’t focusing on any particular task, generally directing our attention inward. The DMN helps us maintain a sense of personal identity and construct a self-narrative or autobiographical memory, aligning with the Freudian concept of ego. The ego can be understood as a lens through which we view our place in the world.  

Our ability for mental time travel allows us to reflect on the past and project into the future. However, fixating on unsettling memories or concerns about the future, a process known as rumination, can put the default mode network into overdrive. Rumination strengthens the DMN, essentially hard-wiring negativity into the brain. A hyperactive default mode network is associated with various neuropsychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, schizophrenia and OCD.

Studies conducted using fMRI reveal that during a psychedelic experience, activity in the DMN is significantly decreased. When it reactivates, the DMN becomes connected to other regions of the brain that were not communicating. This broader connection phenomenon is known as neuroplasticity. 

By temporarily disrupting the activity of the default mode network, psychedelics foster more open and freer communication between regions of the brain that are usually separate. According to the entropic brain hypothesis, the state of consciousness induced by psychedelics mirrors that of early childhood, characterized by awe and wonder and a perception of the world as entirely novel. These findings align with novelist Aldous Huxley’s early reflections on psychedelic experiences, which he envisioned as a “Mind at Large” that provides access to a broader set of brain functions and an unbounded state of consciousness extending beyond the individual into the collective.

Brain imaging shows that this “reset” of neural connections results in a mind that is less constrained, more flexible and less self-referential and egoic. These altered states of consciousness often provide insights, awareness, transcendence and emotional healing, indicating clinical links between changes to the functional connectivity of the DMN and the positive therapeutic outcomes observed. 

Another highly transformative aspect of psychedelics is the mystical experience of feeling indistinct from nature or a higher power: an all-pervading sense of oneness. The term “ego dissolution” began to be used in the 1950s to describe the experience induced by psychedelics; the experience itself can range from a feeling of being less absorbed in personal concerns to a profound sense of unity with the universe. As the ego – in psychoanalytic terms – dissolves and loosens its grip on the mind, pathological thought patterns can be replaced by alternate perspectives that can help people break free from mental and social isolation.

David Nutt, director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit at Imperial College London, states: “In the depressed brain, in the addicted brain, in the obsessed brain, it gets locked into a pattern of thinking. Psychedelics disrupt that process so people can escape. With a single administration, we can help people see the world in a different way.”

The “brain reboot” facilitated by psychedelics can lead to more adaptable thinking, emotional breakthroughs and a significant transformation in how individuals perceive themselves. Psychotherapeutic techniques such as mindfulness meditation can be used in conjunction with psychedelics for therapeutic purposes because they modulate the DMN in similar ways and act synergistically. 

Mindfulness refers to the awareness that emerges when we deliberately pay attention to the experience of the present moment with curiosity and without judgment. By enhancing and cultivating non-judgmental awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings, mindfulness practices help integrate, deepen and maintain the new perspectives and motivation sparked by the psychedelic experience.

As neuroscience continues to unravel the mysteries of the mind, it is providing growing evidence that the rewiring of the brain induced by psychedelics helps modify thought patterns and increase neurological flexibility, offering hope for those who wish to enhance their mental and emotional wellbeing.

Sandra is a Mexican writer and translator based in San Miguel de Allende who specializes in mental health and humanitarian aid. She believes in the power of language to foster compassion and understanding across cultures. She can be reached at: [email protected] 

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