Eating mushrooms certainly changes the way you think, and the more you take, the wilder it gets.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what happens, but a new study published in the journal Neuroimage Clinical has uncovered some interesting insight into how to brain processes stimuli while under the effects of psilocybin, with some fascinating implications for the treatment of PTSD.
The study discovered that psilocybin, the active component in hallucinogenic mushrooms, reduces activity in the amygdala while a person observes an image that induces fear. The amygdala plays a pivotal role in emotional learning and the process of connecting emotions to specific memories, meaning this discovery may help explain the naïve, happy-go-lucky manner with which a person on mushrooms seems to experience every little thing as if it were the first time.
Researchers gave volunteers doses of psilocybin large enough to induce “changes in mood and consciousness,” meaning not enough to make them really trip nuts. Volunteers laid down in a functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) machine, which is basically a normal MRI that can do an experiment in real time. They looked at negative images mixed in with positive images and were asked to pair each one, a simple task that requires the brain to recognize which image is negative and which is positive.
Negative images were gruesome or threatening—aimed weapons, mutilations, attacking animals, etc.—while the positive images were simply things from everyday life. The volunteers, maybe excited for the free dose of shrooms, were in for a small letdown from the get-go after having to watch gruesome photographs one after another in an MRI, peaking on mushrooms.
Volunteers that were on psilocybin took more time to match negative with negative than those that only took the placebo. In addition to data neuroscientists collected using the fMRI, the authors of the study were able to conclude that psilocybin reduces sensitivity to threatening stimuli by reducing “top-down connectivity” between the amygdala and the visual cortex.
After a person sees a perceived threat, the brain processes the information using a feedback loop between the visual cortex (which “decodes” the signals from your eyes) and the amygdala. The amygdala does a lot of things, but its most relevant function, in this case, is its role in emotional processing; the amygdala dictates your reaction to the threat. Interestingly, the amygdala has trouble doing more than one thing at a time, which means any limitation by the part of the amygdala (like if it’s tripping shrooms) during the perception of a threat hinders the feedback loop and suppresses the negative emotion.
A person with an impaired amygdala due to a medical condition will have a harder time remembering a story with a severe negative emotional connotation to it, which illustrates the role our amygdalas play in reinforcing negative emotions in memory. Relatedly, the amygdala also plays a significant role in PTSD. When shown pictures with fearful expressions, patients suffering from PTSD experience increased activation of the amygdala. Could this mean psilocybin could one day be a treatment for PTSD?
Authors of the study indicated that psilocybin could serve as a tool for psychotherapists. A drug that can diminish fear responses during exposure therapy may aid the process of ridding the powerful negative emotion from the traumatic memory. Exposure therapy has shown some success in patients with PTSD, but it isn’t foolproof.
Could psilocybin one day find itself at the disposal of psychotherapists to help “open up” their patients? The future will have to tell. Many pharmaceutical chemists focus on removing the psychoactive properties from cannabis and other psychedelics to keep people from getting high.
However, the latest trends in psychedelic research have shown that the “high” is actually necessary for the medicinal effect.
(Photo: Dreamlake by Dustynaltimus via Reddit)
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