Psychedelic Psychology: Mushrooms Make Social Rejection Less Painful

A recent landmark research paper in the study of psychedelics, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows the potential that psilocybin, the active component in magic mushrooms, may have for treating social problems in psychiatric patients. In what's turning into the Spring of Psychedelics for academic research (the same season as Bicycle Day and, of course, 420), this study comes within two weeks of another landmark insight into the human brain on acid.

Contact with other human beings and a feeling of inclusion and community play vital roles in the mental and physical well being of every individual. People suffering from psychiatric disorders often have increased negative reactions to social rejection than healthy individuals, which can slow treatment programs and mental development. Little or no medications exist which can address this problem directly, leading to off-label uses of drugs such as benzodiazepines that can lead to addiction.

This recent research from the University of Heidelberg in Mannheim, Germany used brain imaging technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to gain an insight into what happens in the brain of a person faced with social rejection, and whether or not a mild dose of psilocybin, the psychoactive and hallucinogenic component of magic mushrooms, changes their perceptions of those feelings. They chose a dose of 0.215 mg per kilogram of bodyweight, roughly equivalent to 2.5 g of median potency mushrooms for somebody that weighs 150 Lbs.

In order to model these feelings of social rejection, the researchers used an experiment called the “Cyberball” paradigm. Participants in this study (which in this case about half of whom were mildly tripping shrooms) played a computer game that simulates a game of catch between them and two other people. The participant thinks the two other people in the game are other participants, but both of them are actually the programmer running the experiment. While the participant receives and tosses the virtual ball back and forth, an fMRI machine is monitoring activity in different regions of their brain.

The game can cause feelings of social rejection when the participant in the study repeatedly does not receive the ball, and creates feelings of social inclusion when they receive the ball as much as the two other “participants.” Feelings of “social pain” as a result of social rejection are associated with increased brain activity in a few specific regions of the brain: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the insula, the inferior orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the middle frontal gyrus (MFG).

Among the participants that took a medium dose of psilocybin, brain activation in several areas related to social rejection was significantly less pronounced. Additionally, those under the effects of mushrooms had a higher “experience of unity.” Interestingly, psilocybin only reduced feelings of social rejection when the participant was actually excluded from the game, meaning it only reduced negative feelings about the game without changing their entire perception of the game.

Other drugs have shown potential for the purpose of reducing feelings of social rejection in psychiatric patients, but none so far fit the bill quite as well as psilocybin. Frequent administration of acetaminophen, sold under the brand name Tylenol, has shown to reduce neural responses to social rejection, but patients report the same feelings of social distress.

In one study MDMA (molly, ecstasy) “selectively decreased the perceived intensity of rejection” in the same Cyberball-type experiment, but only because the participants overestimated the amount of throws they received. On the other hand, this recent experiment shows that psilocybin is capable of exclusively reducing feelings of social pain without the person’s memory of the game.

This recent research has important applications for the design of novel pharmaceutical drugs that can improve the social well being of people suffering from borderline personality disorder, bipolar, social anxiety, etc. As researchers become less shy about studying hallucinogens and other psychoactive drugs, real progress has been made in our understanding of the brain and human consciousness.

(Photo by Alan Rockefeller)

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