A few years ago, I heard an interesting piece on the NPR program Radio Lab about a study in the 1960s on the effects of psilocybin, the active drug in magic mushrooms. The investigation later dubbed the “Marsh Chapel Experiment” or “The Good Friday Experiment” was conducted to see if psychedelics could induce religious experiences in religiously predisposed people. Timothy Leary was one of the study’s principal investigators, and it has thus gained some fame (and notoriety) in scientific circles.
The results fascinated me. Of the 20 male graduate students selected for the study who were studying to become clergymen, 10 of them received a dose of psilocybin, and 10 of them received the vitamin niacin.
While they found that psilocybin did indeed induce profound religious experiences in all 10 of the psilocybin group, the most shocking finding was revealed when they followed up with the subjects years later.
Of the ten who received that single dose of psilocybin on that day, all of them went on to become clergymen, while 9 out of 10 who took niacin ended up eventually choosing different careers.
This is a tiny sample size. There were some issues with the study design and execution, so I’m suspicious of over-generalized reports of these findings–but damn, it makes you wonder.
While the scientific merits of these kinds of studies can be and still are debated, this was the first time I’d ever even heard of a psychedelic drug outside of the context of a Grateful Dead concert or the U.S. government’s secret LSD studies on military personnel and prostitutes. The neuroscience nerd in me couldn’t resist seeing what other research was out there.
As it turns out, in the past decade or so, the U.S. government has begun to allow some small, highly controlled, particular trials to study the effects of psilocybin in a few different settings, the most prominent of which is psychotherapy.
One of the most prominent of these studies came out in 2011, examining the effects of psilocybin on anxiety and depression in patients with advanced cancer. Again, the results were striking, though furthermore, the small scale of the study precludes its generalizability.
The 12 subjects acted as their controls, receiving both the placebo and the psilocybin treatment at different time points. After receiving the single, moderate dose of psilocybin, the researchers observed long-term decreases in anxiety and depression, as far out as six months after treatment.
Other studies have found that psilocybin can enhance recollection of autobiographical memories, reduce OCD symptoms, and alleviate cluster headaches.
Furthermore, while psychedelics have been used in other countries to treat various addictions, western medicine seems to be opening up to the idea of using them to treat drug abuse and alcoholism as well. Thus, many clinicians, though certainly not all of them, are beginning to see psychedelics as promising therapeutic tools.
Furthermore, psilocybin has been shown to operate on the brain’s serotonin system, which has long been a target of many pharmaceutical interventions for mental illnesses. One of the most widely prescribed antidepressants/anti-anxiety medications, Prozac, increases serotonin’s availability in the brain.
If you press a neuroscientist hard enough, however, he or she will eventually admit that no one knows the exact mechanism by which manipulating the serotonergic system alters one’s general mood. However, some new findings may hold at least part of that answer and help better understand the underlying neurological deficits associated with mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
This might also explain the delayed effects of many mood disorder drugs that operate on serotonergic systems. Most of these drugs are relatively specific to one type of neuron receptor and exhibit limited bio uptake. People often don’t report any changes in mood for several weeks. Repeated use over this time may be necessary to induce sufficient changes in neural firing patterns that cause behavioral and emotional changes. Researchers have long postulated that this time lag results from longer-term genetic changes required for the drugs to work. Such genetic changes would be necessary to establish long-term, stable changes in neural firing patterns as well.
This is Your Brain on Shrooms
If you follow any pop-science news sites, you’ve probably seen something recently about a study on the effects of magic mushrooms on brain activity.
In summary, researchers at Imperial College London found that a low dose of psilocybin, the active drug in magic mushrooms, led to interesting neural firing patterns. Namely, many of the brain areas typically “in sync” during normal, non-drugged states are not synchronized under the influence of psilocybin. In contrast, other sites that are not typically synchronized under normal conditions sync up when someone trips on funky fungi.
Psilocybin May Alleviate Symptoms of Mood Disorders
It’s been hypothesized that many psychopathologies are associated with abnormal patterns of neuronal synchrony. If this is the case with depression and anxiety, it would seem feasible that attempts to alter this irregular pattern could benefit someone suffering from one of these mood disorders.
It’s somewhat of a guess on my part. Still, psilocybin might alleviate symptoms of mood disorders by scrambling the abnormal neural firing pattern and “forcing”–or at least influencing–a brain to establish a new design. This oversimplifies the issue somewhat, but I find the idea intriguing nonetheless.
For one, It fits with the serotonin story. Serotonin is a likely candidate to regulate patterns of neural synchrony since it is one of the most widespread and diffuse neurotransmitters in the brain. While it’s been implicated in many brain functions, both normal and abnormal, its specific parts are often difficult to pin down. A more generalized process of neural synchrony might account for its elusive role in many brain functions studied to date.
Given these findings that new patterns of neural synchrony emerge when someone is under the influence of psilocybin and that psilocybin has been shown in some cases to alleviate mood disorders, it seems feasible, then, that a critical function of serotonin in regulating mood is regulating the synchronous activity of networks of neurons.
This is overly simplistic, but many people advocate that people with mood disorders get out and try new things. Perhaps one way this works to get people out of a rut is by establishing new neural firing patterns or temporarily mixing them up.
This generally takes some time, and people gradually start to feel better (if they do at all). Psilocybin might instead be an exceptionally potent neural intervention in this sense, evidenced by its apparent long-term effects after only a single dose.