In the age of the Internet troll, having a thick skin can be a real advantage, although no matter how resilient or robust you are, it can still be hard to keep your chin up when the world seems to be against you. Amazingly, however, researchers from the University of Zurich have discovered that psilocybin – the hallucinogenic compound found in magic mushrooms – actually alleviates feelings of social rejection.
Perhaps more importantly, by tracking the impact of psilocybin on brain activity, they were able to observe how negative social stimuli are processed by the brain, illuminating key pathways that could be targeted by future treatments for depression.
In a letter to the famous author Aldous Huxley, British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond once wrote “to fathom hell or soar angelic, take a pinch of psychedelic.” By this, he was referring to the way in which hallucinogenic drugs like psilocybin have the capacity to profoundly affect our mood, sending us spiraling into the abyss of a “bad trip” or elevating us to euphoric heights.
In the case of psilocybin, this effect is largely down to the way in which the drug binds to serotonin receptors in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in mood regulation by controlling the brain's responses to negative stimuli, and studies have shown that by stimulating these receptors, psilocybin reduces the intensity with which these stimuli are processed.
Lead researcher Katrin Preller told IFLScience that “we conducted an earlier study which showed that psilocybin decreases the processing of negative stimuli in general, and now we have narrowed that down to social processing, which is such an important part of everyday life.”
Social pain, which refers to the emotional anguish that results from social rejection, has previously been associated with increased activity in certain brain regions, most notably the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the middle frontal gyrus. The precise role of serotonin in this process has never been fully explored, which is why the researchers were keen to discover if psilocybin could attenuate social pain processing in these brain areas.
Psilocybin is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. Comaniciu Dan/Shutterstock
To test this, they recruited 21 volunteers to take part in a game called Cyberball, which involves “throwing” a virtual ball to a number of other players. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy, the study authors examined the neurological activity of players when they were excluded from receiving the ball.
Half of the participants were then given a dose of psilocybin, while the other half received a placebo. When playing another round of Cyberball, players who had taken the trippy substance displayed reduced activity in the brain regions associated with social pain processing, while simultaneously reporting diluted feelings of rejection. Publishing their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study authors explain that their work appears to confirm the role of serotonin in mediating social processing in the brain.
“It’s really important to understand what’s going on the brain when we interact socially,” insists Preller, adding that “identifying these brain processes is extremely helpful if we think of future medications.”
For instance, the paper notes that “increased reactivity to social exclusion is clinically relevant in depression, borderline personality disorder, social anxiety disorder, and other psychiatric disorders.” As such, Preller hopes that one day “we’ll be able to develop medications that target these mechanisms in the psychiatric population.”
While these types of treatments are still some way off, humanity’s inability to get along and be nice means we’ve probably still got plenty of time to work on it.