Psychedelics: Drugs That Can Rewire Your Brain

Mental health problems saw a rise after the pandemic hit us in early 2020. Depression and anxiety are the most common illnesses people are facing. Current medicines for treating mental illness include anti-depressants or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) in technical terms. Many people undergo side effects like nausea, loss of appetite, insomnia and weight loss. Still, anti-depressants are being used as very few advancements have been made since the 1980s in this medication. 

Source: psypost.com

Psychedelics, once a stigmatized subject, is now under a renaissance owing to a flurry of groundbreaking research. Reports have shown positive results so far. Trials so far reveal that these drugs can rewire the brain which can help treat depression and other mental problems.


What are Psychedelics?

Psychedelic, derived from Greek, translates to mind-manifesting or to reveal or see your soul.

Psychedelics are a class of drugs that can induce states of altered perception, thought, and mood and affect many cognitive processes. Before this term was coined, these drugs were known as hallucinogens- based on the hallucinations experienced under the influence.

In ancient times, plants with mind-altering abilities were used in rituals for their healing powers and pleasure. In the 19th century, scientists and psychiatrists began discovering new kinds of drugs that were hallucinogenic. By the mid-20th century, LSD, MDMA and later Psilocybin were synthesized and used for recreational purposes on thousands of people. 

Soon, these drugs came out of labs and reached the mean streets in the hands of the common populace of the USA. They became part of the counter-culture movement, including hippies. Rave parties were a new home for drugs where young men and women overdosed and went wild.

The States banned possession of psychedelic substances in 1968. UN followed on the same path by classifying psychedelics including LSD, DMT & MDMA as controlled substances. The U.S. Controlled Substances act in 1971 moved these drugs to Schedule I status. This status stands for drugs having a high potential for abuse and has no currently accepted medical treatment. With that, all the medical research and therapeutic use of psychedelics blemished.

 

Psychedelic Drugs

The most common hallucinogens that are widely used include:

LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide) also called acid is a powerful mind-altering chemical. Lysergic acid got from the ergot fungus that grows on rye and other grains is used to make LSD. It comes as a white powder or clear colorless liquid.

Magic Mushrooms

Source: Caleb Brown (Joust) at Mushroom Observer, via Wikimedia Commons

Psilocybin comes from magic mushrooms found in the USA, Mexico, South America and some parts of Europe.

DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) is found in the plants of Amazon. Ayahuasca is a tea made from such plants which are used by locals. Synthetic DMT can also be produced in the lab as a white crystalline powder that is smoked.


How psychedelics alter the brain

Psilocybin is found in magic mushrooms also known as shrooms. It is broken down into psilocin when our body breaks down the chemical. The molecular structure of Psilocin is like the Serotonin neurotransmitter existing in the brain. It is found in all our brains in high concentration. It is a very important transmitter involved in modulating sleep, mood, and cognition.


Psilocin, LSD having chemical structures that resemble the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Source: Diana Kwon

Scientists found that there is a positive correlation between a psychedelic drug's affinity for a serotonin receptor in the brain and its potency. Drugs that are stickier, like LSD, at the Serotonin 2A receptor, a subtype of Serotonin receptor, are very potent. Whereas mescaline, a hallucinogen found in peyote cactus, needs a large amount to produce a psychedelic effect, meaning it is less sticky. It has a lower affinity to the Serotonin 2A receptor. Blocking these receptors and then taking Psilocybin will not produce any psychedelic effects.

A psychedelic experience, also known as a trip, is a temporary altered state of consciousness induced by the consumption of psychedelic substances. A prominent element of psychedelic experiences is visual alteration. It often includes the formation of complex flowing geometric patterns in the visual field. When the eyes are open, the visual alteration overlays the objects and spaces in the physical world. When the eyes are closed, the visual alteration is seen in the “inner world” or the mind. The visual alteration rarely includes hallucinations. The person undergoing the experience can still differentiate between real and imaginary visuals. Sometimes though, true hallucinations can take place.


Psychedelic art showcasing visuals experienced during a trip

Source: GARDEN, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Apart from that, emotions run high through people when they are tripping. People also reported a sense of awakening or higher consciousness. They could feel more details about the surroundings after the trip ended. People describe the experience having a supernatural quality. They can feel the disintegration of their ego.

Steve Jobs described taking LSD as “a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life.”

People undergoing psychedelic experiences feel escalated emotions. So, scientists expected these drugs to increase brain activity. FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans showed the exact opposite of this hypothesis. The results presented reduced brain activity. Blood flow in the brain was decreased in the regions of the default mode network such as the posterior cingulate cortex, medial prefrontal cortex and other hubs like the thalamus subcortical. 

A default mode network is a group of regions in the brain that show lower levels of activity when a person is engaged in a task needing attention. But, higher levels of activity when a person is awake and not engaged in any specific mental exercise. The visual cortex and motor cortex did not have reduced blood flow. People who had an intense experience with the drug had the biggest drop in blood flow in these regions.

 

Changes in cerebral blood flow after psilocybin vs after placebo

Source: Dr. Carhart-Harris et al.

These results rhyme with the effects of meditation. During the state of meditation, there is a reduction in brain activity, particularly in the medial frontal region of the brain. This region is hyperactive in a state of depression.

A clinical trial in patients with depression was carried out giving them intravenous psilocybin. The results were promising and showed a reduction in anxiety ratings and depression ratings.

“Psychedelics, used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology or the telescope is for astronomy. These tools make it possible to study important processes that under normal circumstances are not available for direct observation.”

Stanislav Grof


Risks of Psychedelics

Hallucinogens are not considered addictive, but over a certain limit lie unwanted dangers. Some of the side effects like dizziness, blurred vision and weakness can be felt on a trip.

Rarely do any reports till now show death from an LSD overdose. As per one estimate, the fatal dose of LSD is 1000 times larger than an effective dose. This makes it harder to overdose on LSD by accident. Many cases have surfaced where people under a trip have faced death by felling off a balcony, jumping out of a vehicle, a car crash or killing someone else.

Another common adverse effect of psychedelics is the bad trip. It involves feelings of anxiety, fear and paranoia. Hallucinogens intensify people’s emotions. So, if anyone takes it without being mentally prepared, bad trips are likely to happen. Drug abuse is also a major concern that has happened in the past. Underage children using these drugs can be dangerous.

Research so far has shown the potential benefits of psychedelics. But, these drugs are very powerful. They need to be controlled before undertaking large scale recreational use. Promoting R & D can lead psychedelics to give patients a safe, therapeutic trip.

Psychedelics remain illegal for general use but have a trip of your own below!

 


This blog is published for educational purposes only.

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