Psilocybin and Depression; Psychedelics Can Reset Brain Function
By: Gaia Staff | Nov. 1st, 2017
Drugs that were once considered verboten are now being applied as effective clinical solutions to dealing with a number of psychological issues, like depression and anxiety. A recent study has gained the most traction in its successful treatment with psilocybin for depression. The study found evidence of a reset mechanism in the brain that can have lasting effects, sometimes for up to five weeks. But, can psychedelics cure depression?
Psilocybin & Depression
A calm, relaxed feeling in the hours, days and weeks after using psilocybin, commonly found in magic mushrooms, is said to be familiar to those who have used the drug before. This is sometimes referred to as an “after-glow,” and many attribute this to the sense of profundity or universal insight acquired during the experience. This sensation is often rather subjective and fleeting – something that would be difficult to measure in a lab.
But now a team of researchers has set out to attempt to measure this feeling and the potential it has for use as a clinical treatment for depression and anxiety. These researchers believe that they have possibly recorded this reaction and noticed a reconfiguration of the pathways that are distorted in people who experience depression and anxiety. Their research appears to show what they call a disintegration and reintegration in which psilocybin acts as a “reset mechanism.”
This test, conducted by researchers at Imperial College in London, looked not only at subjective measures of how patients felt in the days and weeks after, but also brain scans to monitor cerebral blood flow and functional connectivity. The scientists focused on the amygdala, an area of the brain where emotion, behavior and motivation is processed, noticing that decreased cerebral blood flow to that particular location correlated with reduced depressive symptoms.
The amygdala is directly connected to the prefrontal cortex, controlling a sort of back and forth process for measuring fear. This is basically where your fight or flight response plays out. The amygdala acts as our alarm system, sending a signal to the prefrontal cortex, which in turn tells it whether that threat is something to actually be concerned about. It’s thought that higher activity in the amygdala leads to lower activity in the prefrontal cortex which causes anxiety and depression.
This has led scientists to see psilocybin as a particularly appropriate drug for people experiencing anxiety and depression. But psilocybin isn’t the only psychedelic that has been shown to have this effect. Could it be the mystical psychedelic experience rather than the drug that is so palliative?
LSD for Depression
Similar studies have been undertaken with LSD in place of psilocybin, providing many similar results. The most well-known trials have been conducted by MAPS, the multi-disciplinary association for psychedelic studies, a group that has been working on advancing clinical research with psychedelic and empathic drugs for treatment of depression, anxiety and PTSD.
A 2014 study administered LSD to 12 patients experiencing severe depression, anxiety and end-of-life anxiety, 11 of who had never taken the drug before. Nearly all who completed the trials expressed the desire to receive more treatments in the future due to positive experiences. One subject said that the experience gave her a shift in values, to make time for things that were more important in life, like her family. Another subject with end-of-life anxiety, found that after her LSD experience she found humor in her illness and looked at herself as part of a larger cosmic entity rather than an individual. Meanwhile, all subjects reported no lasting adverse side effects after the experience.
While these clinical studies have shown promise, and work well in closely monitored environments with professional psychotherapy sessions to accompany them, many remain unconvinced due to the small set of studies and small subject samples. But this is primarily due to strict laws preventing these trials as well as difficulty obtaining the drugs from a legitimate source. Though it seems that groups like MAPS may be helping to slowly eliminate the stigma, stating that they believe certain psychoactive drugs will be approved for clinical use within the next several years.
Ketamine Depression Treatment
Clinical trials for treating depression with LSD and psilocybin often lead critics and journalists to harken back to the ’60s and make some clichéd quip about the hippie generation, or their brief stint experimenting with the drug in college. But when it comes to ketamine, personal anecdotes are few and far between. This drug, that tends to also fall into the recreational club-drug scene, has shown some profound results when it comes to its potential for treating severe depression, especially for those who are suicidal.
Though ketamine for treating depression is considered use as an off-label drug, one that is used for a purpose other than what it is labeled for, it has shown unprecedented results. Typically used as an anesthetic, in large doses ketamine is a highly psychoactive hallucinogen, and also an antidepressant.
People who are suicidal and have not had success with typical antidepressants, have seen drastic changes within a few hours of a ketamine treatment. Researchers believe that ketamine acts on glutamate, rather than serotonin and dopamine, the chemicals most antidepressants focus on. This particular channel can cause drastic changes and overnight transformation in attitudes of people suffering from severe depression.
Of course, doses high enough to achieve this effect are incapacitating and can be difficult to deal with. The psychedelic effect of ketamine can lead to “k-holes” or feelings of intense and sometimes frightening psychedelic experience often paired with paralysis. This is leading doctors to search for drugs that can target the glutamate in the brain, but skip the burdensome trip.
While these drugs have amazing potential to help solve mental issues that plague large percentages of society, there needs to be a shift in drug policy to allow them to be rescheduled. All of these drugs are Schedule 1, classified as having no medical value, but clearly there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. While their use should be monitored and taken in a controlled manner, their criminalization is preventing people from taking advantage of the positive results scientists are seeing. And when an effective drug is made illegal, it can lead to those who need it, seeking it out on the street where purity and quality aren’t guaranteed.
Can psychedelics cure depression? Do you think they should be continued in clinical trials or is there too much of a risk?