The Cutting-Edge Science and Research Behind Modern Psychedelics
In an era increasingly open to discussions surrounding mental health, there’s a ticking revolution in the field of psychiatry. A renaissance of exploration is happening around psychedelics, revealing a hopeful horizon of potential therapeutic applications. Harnessing decades of research and modern scientific techniques, researchers have begun to unlock the vast potential of psychedelics-assisted therapy, primarily for mental health disorders.
Psychedelics, once pigeonholed as a solely recreational, taboo and legislatively demonized substance, is now the subject of serious scientific investigations, thanks to the relaxation of laws and changing societal perspectives. Clinical studies and lab-based research are underway, peeling layers off our understanding of these substances and how they interact with the mind and brain.
To understand the science behind psychedelics, it is essential to understand what they do in our brain. Upon intake, psychedelics primarily interact with a specific type of serotonin receptor in the brain, aptly termed the “5-HT2A receptor.”(source) Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in mood regulation, anxiety, and overall happiness. The engagement of psychedelics with these receptors spawns a cascade of effects, the most significant of which results in a dramatic alteration in perception and consciousness.
The intricacies of this alteration were something of an enigma for the longest time. Recent studies, however, have offered illuminations. Brain imaging technologies like fMRI and PET scans, have shown that, contrary to initial assumptions, psychedelics do not increase, but rather decrease activity in certain areas of the brain like the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is a series of interconnected brain areas that help us form a coherent sense of self and map our autobiographical memories. (source) This decrease in activity fosters a sort of ‘ego dissolution,’ whereby a user’s individual self-awareness blends with a larger, more unified perception of the world- a phenomena many have likened to a spiritual or transcendental experience.
This disruption of the self, under guided, controlled settings can prove profoundly therapeutic for certain mental health conditions. And research is beginning to reveale this. One study on Psilocybin, a naturally-occurring psychedelic, highlighted its potential to help with severe forms of depression. It showed that, with careful dosage and supervision, these substances could perhaps remodel the gloomy inner life of the chronically depressed. (source)
A similar study targeted those struggling with life-threatening cancer and the associated anxiety it induces. Again, under professional guidance and controlled conditions, a single dose of Psilocybin led to immediate, substantial, and sustained improvements in anxiety and depression. The changes were so drastic that the physiological and emotional outlook of cancer patients increased months after the session.(source)
But the research on psychedelics is far from monochromatic and one-dimensional. LSD, for example, is one psychedelic that has been demonstrated, under controlled conditions to initiate new connection pathways in the brain, fostering a more integrated, decentralized cognitive processing. (source) This mechanism’s potential in improving cognitive flexibility and maybe even allowing a ‘reset’ of maladaptive thinking patterns is huge.
Moreover, MDMA, another substance often looped with psychedelics, has found potential in therapy for PTSD patients, with the multi-site Phase 3 trials underway by MAPS (The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), indicating a possible FDA approval in a few years. (source)
While the science and research backing psychedelics continue to burgeon, caution is important. They are not a magical panacea. But, their potential in dealing with various mental health disorders – some of which have previously been seen as refractory or recurrent – is an exciting prospect for the future of psychiatry. These studies and ongoing research underline a significant shift from the stigmatization of psychedelics to an acceptance of their possible therapeutic benefits. We stand on the brink of a new era of understanding and harnessing the unknown, the mysterious, and the potential within these compounds, and it would be a missed opportunity not to explore.