Sunday, 5 February 2012

Magic Antidepressants


Continued studies on the effect magic mushrooms have on the brain are showing that psilocybin, the active ingredient of psychedelic mushrooms, affects key parts of the brain in ways that relate to depression and anxiety disorders.

Robin Carhart-Harris, a post-doc in neuroscience at Imperial College London, and lead author of the studies on psilocybin's therapeutic effects, says that psychedelics can lift people away from negative modes of thinking, especially for those who suffer from depression. So far, the results from experiments with volunteers have supported this theory. Ten subjects reported that recalling happy memories was a much more "vivid, visual, and happy" experience with psilocybin as opposed to without.

"The brain's doing a lot to keep our experiences of the world orderly and constrained," says Carhart-Harris. The parts of the brain that try to structure our perception of the world, keeping it rational and safe, are suppressed by psilocybin, resulting in vivid emotional experiences. These areas of the brain function differently in people that have mental health issues such as depression, hence the speculation that the drug may be useful in treating mental illness.

In another study, 30 volunteers underwent brain scans in an MRI machine while under the influence of psilocybin. The brain scans showed less activity in the posterior cingulate cortex, which is thought to have a connection to consciousness and ego, and is hyperactive in people with depression.

Less brain activity was not what the researchers expected to find. The fantastical nature of psychedelic trips has always been attributed to overactive brain activity. It's not surprising that misinformation still surrounds the field - serious psychedelic research was shut down during the 60s, a time when psychedelic culture was a national scare.

Fortunately, recent studies such as this allow for psychedelics to be given serious consideration. Other small studies found improvements in people who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as improved mood and lessened anxiety in cancer patients.

The experiences are not uniformly positive - 39% reported anxiety and fear. There are trained monitors that stay with the subjects to lessen any negative reactions.

Still, research continues, and Carhart-Harris plans to answer the question of whether psilocybin does significantly help the symptoms of depression.

Visible Language by Felipe Venancio on Flickr courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing

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