Scientists want to find out if shrooms could increase consciousness in people that are unresponsive.
Brain Activity Found in Patients With Disorders of Consciousness
Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist, and his colleagues have been looking for signs of consciousness in patients believed to have none since the late 1990s.
They detected awareness in a woman stuck in an unresponsive state to imagine playing tennis. Her brain showed a pattern of neural activity identical to a healthy person. Owen concluded that this woman was not vegetative and was responding to him and his colleagues and did everything she was asked.
Owen has been working with patients who have disorders of consciousness (DoC). These disorders are the result of traumatic brain injuries or other incidents that cut off oxygen to the brain.
Disorders of consciousness (DoC) are different from comas. People with DoC are partially vegetative and are minimally conscious. They are awake but not aware. Their eyes can be open, they can occasionally move, and are in an almost present moment.
Owen and other scientists found that 15 to 17 percent of DoC patients produced brain responses similar to the woman playing imaginary tennis.
How Can Scientists Treat DoC?
Better guidelines have been enforced to better diagnose DoC. However, even if scientists are able to diagnose DoC there is still a problem with finding a treatment for DoC.
The Neuroscience of Consciousness is looking at the ethics of using psilocybin in DoC patients. Scott and Carhart-Harris are trying to see if they can restore consciousness by having patients ingest psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
Andrew Peterson, an assistant professor at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University was against the idea of giving patients psilocybin for the treatment of DoC but later felt that it was worth the consideration.
Peterson and co-author neuroscientist Enzo Tagliazucchi applied two ethical models called the Value-Validity Framework and Component Analysis to analyze if the outcomes of the trial are worth the burden the patients may have.
Their paper is neither an endorsement nor a disparagement of the concept. Peterson only hopes that their models can be a roadmap for scientists that want to conduct research on consciousness.
Can Psychedelics Increase Brain Complexity & Consciousness?
Giving patients with DoC psilocybin is linked to theories of brain complexity and consciousness. Brain complexity is associated with the level in which different regions of the brain communicate with each other and lower states of awareness have less complexity.
It seems that ingesting psychedelics would increase a person’s brain complexity. George Scott, a neurologist at Imperial College London and an author of the Neuroscience of Consciousness found multiple examples of the relationship between consciousness and brain complexity. Scott also found evidence of increased brain complexity in people with healthy brains.
However, the link between psilocybin and consciousness is still unresolved. Scott said,
The simple way of framing it is that disorders of consciousness have low complexity, and these drugs seem to increase complexity. Let’s see what these drugs do in disorders of consciousness. Can they increase complexity and accordingly increase consciousness levels?
Scott says that through a trial they could learn something about consciousness and measure psilocybin’s therapeutic value.
He says that psilocybin interacts with a serotonin receptor and increases the activity of neurons. Those neurons are concentrated in the consciousness part of the brain and seeing how they respond could help in understanding how important these areas are.
Scott and Carhart-Harris started their experient on healthy people who were sedated or sleeping before starting on DoC patients. They want to see how psilocybin affects brain complexity and consciousness in those states. If their results are promising and the study design is safe, they will then move on to DoC patients.
Should Scientists Use Psilocybin To treat DoC?
There are still no trails that exist and doing any kind of research on DoC patients may be unethical because they cannot give consent or let you know that what is being done on them is hurting them.
The FDA has acknowledged psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy for depression. However, DoC patients are an entirely different population, and just because its safe for depressed patients does not mean it will be deemed safe for DoC patients.
Tagliazucchi’s ethical concern is the self-awareness paradox. They want to restore consciousness but maybe by doing so they will make the patient aware of their environment, their situation, their injury, and their quality of life. So what if Tagliazucchi unintentionally inflicts emotional or physical pain? What if the patient gets a bad trip or the DoC patient cannot communicate?
Tagliazucchi and Peterson say that we should consider the ethics just like any other intervention. Psychedelics do not raise any ethical issues that are unique.
Psychedelics are just one kind of new drug that could (or could not) be effective for this clinical purpose.
They have also pointed out that more invasive treatments like deep brain stimulation are already being tried on DoC patients. Is this Ethical?
However, just because a population desperately needs treatment does not mean researchers should try anything. Moreover, a hesitation towards psychedelics should not hinder researchers from considering them and they may be worth a safe and designed trial.
When Owen first began studying consciousness in people with vegetative states, many thought it was a waste of time and resources.
If we’d succumbed to those ‘knee-jerk’ early reactions, 20 years of extremely valuable science would never have occurred.
Scott also feels that doing nothing is not the most ethical option, especially since patients in these vegetative states are increasing.
People who suffer traumatic brain injuries or heart attacks are deprived of oxygen reaching the brain but are more likely to survive because of the improvement of medicine.
It’s potentially the case that we’re generating more people who are in this state because those people would have died 20 to 30 years ago. If people say you can’t ethically do anything, that we should leave them alone—that produces a neglected group who no one’s really thinking about how we can help. When you look at it from that point of view, it’s a fairly dreadful situation, just in a different way.
There will be challenges to overcome when treating people with DoC but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything. I believe that psychedelics could help patients in these vegetative states.