How it works: Psychedelics and mental health

Date:13 January 2020 Author: Lucinda Dordley

The notion of micro-dosing magic mushrooms – or ‘shrooms’ – is increasing in popularity around the world. New research reveals that the active ingredient in shrooms, psilocybin, can aid in the treatment of anxiety and depression, as it is chemically similar to the neurotransmitter serotonin that is produced by the brain. Serotonin is involved in many neural functions including mood and perception.

The psychedelic drug LSD also contains psilocybin, but primary research is concentrating on the use of shrooms or psilocybin capsules to treat those with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). This series of testing is being conducted by the American FDA, and preliminary evidence suggests that the drug may majorly improve and come to beat the already available therapies for MDD, anxiety disorders, and even personality disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

In addition to psilocybin, widely abused anaesthetic drug ketamine, MDMA – or ecstasy – and LSD are all being tested by reputable researchers as treatments for depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

Another popular psychedelic called DMT or dimethyltryptamine also activates the serotonergic pathways of the brain, as well as binds sigma-1 receptors, which are used in the communication process between neurons.

Psychedelics affect the brain so deeply because they cause neurons to grow.

A key brain area for psychedelic drugs’ effects seems to be the temporal lobe, the location of most emotional and memory function. The removal of the front part of the temporal lobe – as a radical treatment for epilepsy – has been shown to prevent the psychological effects of taking LSD.

Think of a neuron like a tree, and dendrites branching off as the branches of a tree. Smaller dendrites could be considered smaller branches, or twigs. These small branches also have leaves or synapses.

As psychedelics encourage more brain activity and more areas of the brain to connect and communicate, their controlled use can encourage more neural pathways to develop. Deeper research conducted into mood and personality disorders has shown that there are specific circuits within the brain that are damaged or disconnected, and the rapid growth encouraged by the use of psychedelics may aid in repairing these.

The use of psychedelics was first outlawed in America in the 1960s, and was named as a substance of no medical value and highly addictive. Many researchers expressed disappointment at the use of these drugs being outlawed, as many psychiatric facilities had begun distributing LSD to their patients. Even after psychedelics were outlawed, some facilities continued to securely treat their patients with LSD in illegal practice.

A 2006 study at Johns Hopkins found that magic mushrooms can induce mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. A 2008 study found that 80% of sufferers no longer qualified for a PTSD diagnosis after MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. The first LSD studies in decades are finding no link between the drug and mental illness, and that patients report benefits from treatment.

In March 2015, Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) said he hoped MDMA would be available by prescription by 2021. Doblin has been at the forefront of establishing MDMA, LSD and other psychedelics as legitimate and effective tools in psychotherapy.

Picture: Pixabay

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