In my college days, I was no stranger to the odd hit of acid or bag of ‘shrooms, and I’ve long believed in the power of drugs like these to be therapeutic under the right circumstances. I’m reading a book right now, in fact, by Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert), a Harvard psychology professor turned yogi and spiritual leader who was part of that whole 1960s scholarly cohort (including Timothy Leary) studying psychedelics. But although serious scholars (and lay people like myself and my college friends) have been studying psychedelics for decades, no one has been quite sure just what affect they have on the brain—until now.
It turns out, serious academic study of psychedelics is back in vogue, only with less mysticism and more neuroscience this time around. And neuroscience is opening up whole new realms of possibilities for the study of psychedelic drugs. In a new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, British researchers used brain scans to measure what physically went on in people’s brains when they took psilocybin, the drug contained in ‘magic mushrooms.’ Their results were surprising—but could potentially lead to some novel treatments for depression.
Contrary to what the researchers expected, the psilocybin didn’t lead to an increase in subjects’ brain activity. Instead, reduced it. I’ll let Time’s Maia Szalivitz explain:
Under the influence of mushrooms, overall brain activity drops, particularly in certain regions that are densely connected to sensory areas of the brain. When functioning normally, these connective “hubs” appear to help constrain the way we see, hear and experience the world, grounding us in reality. They are also the key nodes of a brain network linked to self-consciousness and depression. Psilocybin cuts activity in these nodes and severs their connection to other brain areas, allowing the senses to run free.
“The results seem to imply that a lot of brain activity is actually dedicated to keeping the world very stable and ordinary and familiar and unsurprising,” says Robin Carhart-Harris, a postdoctoral student at Imperial College London and lead author of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
That’s generally a good thing—if your brain took in all the stimuli in your environment, you would never be able to focus on anything. But psychedelic drugs—and practices like meditation—allow us to tune into all the things our brain would normally tune out.
Interestingly, the two brain regions that showed the most reduced activity on psilocybin were the medial prefontal cortex (mPFC) and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). An overactive mPFC is linked with rumination, obsessive thinking and depression. All of the depression treatments that have proved effective—from Prozac to electroconvulsive therapy to talk therapy—reduce activity in the mPFC.
Neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt, who gave a briefing about the study, said the results shouldn’t encourage you to “go out there and eat magic mushrooms. But…this drug has such a fundamental impact on the brain that it’s got to be meaningful — it’s got to be telling us something about how the brain works. So we should be studying it and optimizing it if there’s a therapeutic benefit.”
I hope they do. And I hope findings like these encourage folks in the U.S. Department of Justice to reconsider its classification of psilocybin as an illegal, Schedule 1 drug, a class of substances considered to “serve no legitimate medical purpose in the United States” which sets up all sorts of restrictions on their scientific study. Considering marijuana is also a Schedule 1 drug here, though, I won’t hold my breath about psilocybin. But maybe, just maybe, neuroscience will have the power to legitimize the study of psychedelics in a way Leary and his gang of merry mystics never could?