Psilocybin and the Depressed Brain
Depression is characterized by a wide variety of things, including deep-seated patterns of thought that, in a very real sense, trap the sufferer in a spiral of spinning negative contemplation. Many people suffering from depression are so entrenched in a petrified form of thinking that they may not respond to conventional forms of treatment. Researchers are finding great promise in the use of psilocybin as a complement to psychotherapy in order to pull people out of these negative thought patterns and into a more healthy balance of neural activity in the brain. One such study conducted by Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London found some of the most surprising and interesting effects of psilocybin in the brain. These results help explain the nature of the depressed brain and what psilocybin does in the brain that enacts lasting positive change.
Carhart-Harris cites the fact that Psilocybin actually reduces the activity in the brain as the most surprising aspect of his research. This is intriguing because the greatest reduction of brain activity occurred in particular areas of the brain that “are densely connected to sensory areas of the brain.” These are the parts of the brain that essentially keep our perception of the world rational –enabling us to navigate the physical world and our daily lives efficiently and pragmatically. These areas filter out parts of reality that may distract us from everyday functionality. Psilocybin is said to place us in a dream-like state because it placates activity in the areas of the brain responsible for keeping us in an ordinary state of consciousness. This effect is especially important for someone with depression. The brain regions in question are the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). The mPFC is associated with rumination and obsessive thinking, while the PCC is linked to the ego, the perception of the self and one’s personality. Over-activity in these regions is linked to depression and more intense self-consciousness. While reducing activity in these regions of the brain, psilocybin concomitantly opens up pathways of communication between areas that otherwise do not send signals to each other in an ordinary conscious state. Psilocybin increases connectivity in areas that allow the brain to perceive reality with much more freedom. Some scientists attest that these new connections bring about the mind’s reception of a higher consciousness –an objective reality that helps one realize their connection to everything in the universe.
Eugenia Bone, author of Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms writes in an op-ed for the New York Times that it is the ability of psilocybin to change the way we think during a trip that is the key to treating someone with depression. Referring to depression as one type of “cognitive rut” that psilocybin wedges the user out of. Because psilocybin inhibits activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex, it also produces radically different connections between other cortical regions of the brain. This change alone is significant for a person suffering from severe and chronic depression –a change in their thought patterns, let alone a radical one that places their focus on positive ideas—can be a wonderful and freeing feeling. Furthermore, researchers at Johns Hopkins are said to have found the “proper dose levels needed to create positive changes in attitudes, mood, life satisfaction, and behavior” that lasted for longer than twelve months after the guided therapy session with psilocybin. One particular way in which these controlled doses of psilocybin affect depression sufferers is the way it helps patients re-frame memories. Bone mentions a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry that attributes an increase in recollection of memories and a change in the way the study participant viewed their recollected memories or which memories they’d end up focusing on. Psilocybin has a positive influence on the concept of “negative cognitive biases” characteristic of depression. The chemical changes the connectivity of the brain in such a way that study participants with depression begin to recollect positive memories as opposed to their former biased focus on negative ones.
Psilocybin assisted Therapy
One common theme cited by researchers of psilocybin and depression is that its classification as a Schedule I substance is not only too harsh but it hinders the alleviation of so many people suffering from depression. Under Schedule I, psilocybin is defined as having no medical purpose. It makes it very difficult for researchers to conduct investigations into its myriad medical benefits. Recent studies have yielded results that stand as strong arguments for changing the status of psilocybin and other psychedelic substances. Scientists and psychiatrists have clearly stated their intention to administer psilocybin in an informed, intelligent, and responsible manner. In no way are they endorsing a revival of the party and recreational use of psilocybin. Furthermore, a 2004 study published in Psychopharmacology sought to address concerns over the possible health risks of psilocybin. The study adds to the strength of the argument for a change of international drug policy, citing no evidence that it poses health risks. It proved to be non-toxic to the body’s organs and its only discernible physical effect was to briefly and slightly raise blood pressure and thyroid stimulating hormones. All of these effects are not harmful to physically healthy adults. More importantly, researchers have tested the effects of different dosage levels—an integral experiment to ensure an optimal therapeutic experience. Many study participants given medium to high doses of psilocybin reported their sessions as a remarkable, beautiful experience. However, there have been participants that became anxious or fearful at any particular point in their session. These moments of unease were easily placated by the support of therapists present and at the disposition of the patient at all times. Dr. Matthew Johnson, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and a lead researcher on a study focusing on psychedelic safety, asserts that while there are no real concerns over physical safety while in the guided use of psilocybin, the indirect risks include a patient experiencing fear or anxiety. This is an important point that highlights the responsible medical use of psilocybin. The support structure in which psilocybin assisted therapy is administered, has been carefully developed to cull the most pleasant and psychologically beneficial results. The patient and therapist establish a rapport with their psychotherapist and a trained session monitor; this facilitates the process of mitigating any indirect adverse side-effects such as episodes of fear and anxiety.
Lasting Relief from Depression
An interesting, discernable difference between the way traditional SSRIs and psilocybin treat depression is that psilocybin seems to enact a more profound spiritual and introspective experience that, in a sense, does much more emotional work. While traditional anti-depressants work on balancing the depressed brain’s chemistry, they don’t instigate the ineffable mystical experience so often cited by study participants. Carhart-Harris explains this by saying that psilocybin forces the patient to face themselves and confront things they otherwise seek to avoid. Psilocybin facilitates this sort of “clearing out” of the possible negative lived experiences, emotional trauma, and regret that make depressive thought spirals extremely difficult to change. In addition to changing one’s negative cognitive biases by fostering new brain connectivity, psilocybin also catalyzes the self-work necessary to lasting relief from the tenacious grip of depression. There is a biological basis to these personal, spiritual epiphanies on psilocybin –the above mentioned studies using MRI scans show the changes in brain activity that are likely responsible for such deep introspective work. Another positive point for the use of psilocybin instead of conventional anti-depressants is that it is not addictive and a few sessions of assisted therapy can reap bounds of healthy progress. Studies have shown that participants feel the lasting positive changes of their psilocybin therapy more than a year after their last session.
It has taken over thirty years to separate psilocybin and other psychedelics from the misinformed discourse surrounding them. That discourse has caused much harm to so many that suffered and continue to suffer in the depths of depression. Thanks to the hard work of psychiatrists and researchers on the quality-controlled, regulated use of psilocybin and its enormous benefits, the perception of it is changing to one informed by responsible, compassionate, intellectual investigation. The issue remains the international change in policy required to open up research that can and should be seen as a human right, not only for those with depression, but other psychosomatic emotional disorders.
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