Psychedelics and psychotherapy can cause fundamental changes in the brain – new research is unraveling at the neuronal level.

Psychedelics and psychotherapy can cause fundamental changes in the brain - new research is unraveling at the neuronal level.

Psychedelics and psychotherapy can cause fundamental changes in the brain – new research is unraveling at the neuronal level.

The human brain is capable of change. But it usually changes only slowly and with great effort, such as when learning a new sport or foreign language, or recovering from a stroke. Neuroscientific studies with animals and scans of human brain function have shown that mastery of new skills correlates with changes in the brain. Perhaps mastering calculus1 changes something in the brain. Furthermore, motor neurons in the brain expand and contract in response to the frequency of exercise.

One might hope that the brain would change more quickly not only when learning a new skill, but also when overcoming problems such as anxiety, depression, or addiction.

Clinicians and scientists know that the brain changes rapidly and continuously. In many cases, traumatic experiences are imprinted on the brain.

But positive experiences that change life for the better can occur just as rapidly. Think of spiritual awakenings, near-death experiences, and reverence for nature.

Social scientists call such events psychologically transformative experiences, or pivotal spiritual states. For the rest of us, they are a fork in the road. Perhaps these positive experiences quickly change the “wiring” of the brain.

How do these rapid, positive changes occur? Apparently, the brain has a way of promoting change at an accelerated rate. And here is where it gets really interesting: psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy seems to utilize this natural neural mechanism.

Psychedelic Supportive Psychotherapy
People who have psychedelic experiences usually describe it as an unspoken mental journey. However, it can also be conceptualized as an altered state of consciousness with perceptual distortions, altered sense of self, and rapid emotional change. Perhaps higher brain controls are loosened and deeper brain thoughts and feelings emerge into consciousness.

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy combines the psychology of talk therapy with the power of psychedelic experiences. The researchers present examples of subjects who reported profound and personal transformative experiences after a six-hour session combining the psychedelic substance psilocybin and psychotherapy. For example, a patient who was battling advanced cancer immediately felt relieved and unexpectedly accepted that he was nearing the end. Why does this happen?

Research shows that new skills, memories, and attitudes are encoded in the brain by new connections between neurons. Neuroscientists call this growth pattern “dendrites.”

Researchers using a technique called two-photon microscopy can observe this process in living cells by tracking the formation and regression of spines on neurons. Spines are part of the synapses that allow communication between one neuron and another.

Scientists have believed that sustained spine formation can only be established by intensive and repetitive mental energy. However, a Yale laboratory recently documented rapid formation of spines in the frontal cortex of mice treated with a single dose of psilocybin. The researchers found that spines formed about 10% faster in mice treated with the mushroom-derived drug. These changes occurred on examination one day after administration and persisted for more than one month.

Mechanism of Psychoactive Changes
Psychoactive molecules alter brain function primarily through receptors on neurons. The serotonin receptor 5HT, well known for its antidepressant effects, has various subtypes. Psychoactive substances such as DMT, the active substance in the plant hallucinogen ayahuasca, stimulate receptor cells called 5-HT2A. These receptors also appear to mediate a hyperplastic state in which the brain undergoes rapid changes.

These 5-HT2A receptors, which are activated by DMT, are present on the surface of neuronal cells as well as inside neurons. Only intracellular 5-HT2A receptors promote rapid changes in neuronal structure. Because serotonin cannot pass through the cell membrane, antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft do not cause hallucinations. Psychedelics, on the other hand, slip through cell membranes and fine-tune 5-HT2A receptors, promoting dendrite growth and spine formation.

DMT is not only the active ingredient in ayahuasca, but also an endogenous molecule that is synthesized naturally in the mammalian brain. In other words, human neurons can produce their own “psychedelic” molecule, albeit in minute quantities. It is possible that the brain uses its own endogenous DMT as an instrument of change to encode pivotal mental states, as neurons do when they form dendritic spines. And it is possible that psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy may use this spontaneous neural mechanism to facilitate healing.

In her collection of essays, These Precious Days, author Ann Patchett describes a time when she ingested mushrooms with a friend who was battling pancreatic cancer. The friend had a mystical experience and came back feeling a deep connection with family and friends. Patchett, on the other hand, spent eight hours “in a cauldron of pitch black lava in the center of the earth, chopping up snakes. It felt like death to her.

Psychedelics are powerful, and classic psychedelic drugs like LSD have yet to be approved as treatments; in 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved ketamine in combination with antidepressants for treating depression in adults and MDMA (often called ecstasy or molly) for PTSD. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy with psilocybin for depression is in phase 3 trials.

Source: Psychedelics and psychotherapy can cause fundamental changes in the brain – new research is unraveling at the neuronal level.

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Psychedelics and psychotherapy can cause fundamental changes in the brain – new research is unraveling at the neuronal level.

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