Psychedelic therapy refers to the practice of administering psychedelic substances to patients suffering from mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe depression, anxiety, or alcoholism. Drugs derived from psychedelic plants have been utilized for thousands of years when humans would consume the seeds, barks, and roots of these plants to attain a heightened level of consciousness and connect with the spiritual realm. Although many studies and trials were performed to investigate the potential benefits of these substances, concerns were immediately raised about their illegal usage for recreational purposes. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classified psychedelics, including LSD, MDMA, ecstasy, and many others, as “Schedule I” drugs because of their high potential for abuse and addiction and lack of accepted medicinal use. Soon after, no pharmaceutical company was permitted to manufacture or distribute such pharmaceuticals to hospitals, institutes, or individuals, and all related research and clinical trials were halted. However, in recent years, research into the therapeutic applications of these medications has accelerated, spurred on by prestigious institutions like UCSF and Johns Hopkins.
Read about the recent research findings from the University of California, San Francisco, here.
How Do Psychedelics Alter One’s State Of Mind?
Advanced tools to visualize and monitor brain activity, such as fMRI, MEG, PET, and EEG, have allowed scientists to make significant breakthroughs in comprehending the effects of psychedelics on the brain and consciousness in recent years. Psychedelic drugs are known to stimulate the serotonin receptor, particularly the 5-HT2A receptor, a group of receptors found in the central and peripheral nervous systems of almost all kinds of organisms. Although many hallucinogens have been shown to stimulate other subgroups of the serotonin receptor, all have been found to bind with the 2A receptor in laboratory settings. These 2A serotonin receptors have a profound impact on the regions of the brain that are important for cognition and self-awareness, including the cerebral cortex and the visual cortex. Administration of these medications has been proven to reduce and desynchronize neural activity in regions of the brain that include the thalamus and cortex, which are important for integrating and controlling brain activities, resulting in distorted perception and unfettered brain function that leaves the individual feeling freer and less constrained. In a broader sense, psychedelics can impede connectivity between normally coordinated brain regions and enhance communication between previously isolated brain regions. This was demonstrated using resting-state fMRI, an imaging technique whereby researchers monitored blood flow in various brain regions while the subject was in a relaxed condition after receiving the hallucinogen. The fact that blood flows from one region of the brain to another indicates that the two areas are functionally connected. While the subject was under the influence of the psychedelic substance, researchers observed a shift in the usual network of neural connections in the brain. In addition to the weakening of connections within networks, there appears to be an increase in connections between networks that are not normally present in the steady state. A model by Carhart-Harris, commonly known as the REBUS model, summarizes these observations. The free-energy principle and the entropic brain theory serve as the foundation of the “relaxed beliefs under psychedelics” model. The free-energy principle provides a cohesive framework for understanding action, perception, and learning. The free-energy theory, which has been around for a long time and has stood the test of time, proposes that all physical and self-organizing systems tend toward a minimum energy state, also known as equilibrium. In this approach, the mind is viewed as an inferential engine that is continually building models to make sense of the world and reduce the amount of unpredictability in every circumstance. To put it another way, it seeks to align the predictions of its models in order to bring them into harmony with the incoming sensory information. Although consciousness is generally perceived as an inherently subjective experience, the entropic brain hypothesis suggests that we may be able to quantify certain aspects of it. Entropy, a quantity central to information theory, is used to quantify how much information and how much uncertainty there is in a given dynamical system. Therefore, states of the brain that are high in entropy can be thought of as having a lot of information but also entails a significant amount of uncertainty and unpredictability. The REBUS model proposes that psychedelics weaken the pre-formed models or beliefs we have of the world and ourselves. The brain appears to be free to generate new neural connections, unencumbered by the previous ones.
Can Psychedelics Treat Extreme Mental Disorders?
Ingestion of psychedelic substances dates back thousands of years and has been used in various contexts, including healing, spirituality, and problem-solving. After a lengthy hiatus, numerous research organizations now have permission to resume studying the effects of these substances on the human brain and how they might be used to alleviate symptoms of mental illnesses such as addiction, anxiety, schizophrenia, terminal pain, and depression. As was said above, psychedelics have been shown to establish new, better neural connections, resulting in altered views of the world and a reframed sense of one’s own identity. They feel intense feelings that can be either positive or negative depending on the person, but in the majority of experiments, the participants came out on the winning end. Everyone who took part in the study reported feeling less anxious and discovering new information about themselves. Investigations on the efficacy of these medicines as treatments for neurological diseases like Parkinson’s and dementia have also been ongoing. What makes for a good or bad experience, and whether or not either can be manipulated by one’s environment, are additional topics of study.
Concerns about the safe and ethical use of psychedelics are widespread, despite the fact that these medicines can be life-saving for those experiencing extreme emotional turmoil and anguish. For the safety of the user and those around them, these medications should only be taken under the supervision of a medical practitioner in a secure and monitored setting, given their potential for inducing altered states of consciousness with no way to know what the user may experience.