How Can Psychedelics Help Heal Mental Illness?

Psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms, has been found to alleviate depression and other mental health disorders. Image: Alexander_Volkov/Shutterstock.com

An infamous public health campaign once famously claimed that drugs do nothing but turn users’ brains into fried eggs. However, a growing body of research suggests that psychedelics may in fact help unscramble the mind, resulting in major improvements in mental health. These days, scientists have largely laid the egghead idea to rest, instead attempting to understand how these consciousness-altering drugs bring about their therapeutic effects.

With current evidence, it would appear that psychedelics have the potential to move the dial on conditions like depression and addiction, yet it is unclear whether healing is mediated by the psychedelic experience itself or by an increase in the brain’s ability to rewire itself following a trip.

Summing up this intriguing psychedelic puzzle, Dr Rosalind Watts – clinical lead of the famous Imperial College London study on psilocybin for depression – posed the question to IFLScience: “is it a brain reset or is it a turbo-charged therapeutic experience? If you ask different patients, you get different responses.”

A “Brain Defrag”

Patients enrolled in Watts’s study had all been diagnosed with severe, treatment-resistant depression – yet showed dramatic, lasting improvements after being treated with psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms. Six months later, Watts and her colleagues interviewed participants about their experiences, noting that several alluded to a mental “defrag”.

“The reset switch had been pressed so everything could run properly,” explained one patient, while another said “I felt my brain was rebooted”. Yet another testified that the effect was “like when you defrag the hard drive on your computer,” and claimed to have visualized their mind being “put into order.”

Fascinatingly, brain scans of patients undergoing psilocybin treatment for depression have revealed that the drug does appear to completely reboot and rearrange certain neurological pathways that are heavily linked to the condition.

In the previous chapter in this series, we explained how psychedelics cause a brain network called the default mode network (DMN) to disintegrate, yet scans taken a day after treatment show an increase in connectivity within the DMN, indicating that it comes back online with renewed vigor once the acute effects of the drug wear off.

Describing this neurological phenomenon, the study authors explained that “this process might be likened to a ‘reset’ mechanism in which acute modular disintegration (e.g. in the DMN) enables a subsequent re-integration and resumption of normal functioning.”

Separate research has revealed that a single dose of ayahuasca causes brain connectivity to become more fluid and flexible for up to several weeks, resulting in prolonged enhancements in mental health parameters. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “psychedelic afterglow” and has been linked to increased mindfulness capacities after drinking the potent Amazonian brew. 

Returning to the question of how psychedelics heal, Watts explains that clinical improvements tend to occur “when there’s a beautiful confluence of afterglow – which is a physiological brain flexibility – combined with having had a deeply therapeutic experience. So it’s working on both levels, it’s neurological and psychological.”

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