Chemically rewiring the brain to increase performance using psychedelics

By Saachi Sachdev 

The brain is most complex organ in the body. Consisting of 86 billion nerves (Your Complex Brain, 2020), all in continual use, this multiplex organ is the basis for each person’s thoughts, emotions and memories. In a healthy brain, connections between different brain regions are regularly sparked in the same patterns, and while this is regular function, it also means it is incredibly difficult to get out of bad habits, routines and thoughts. By rewiring the brain and stimulating new patterns, there is potential to develop a new mindset. Latest research shows psychedelic drugs have unmatched results when treating addictions and severe mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression (The Guardian, 2019).

Psychedelics are the class for psychoactive drugs that results in its user experiencing hallucinations and an altered perception (Nichols, 2016). Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocin (found in magic mushrooms) are the most street recognised psychedelics, along with N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and peyote (mescaline) (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2019). These drugs are considered as Class A drugs, with their possession, supply and production leading to the most serious drug fine and prosecution sentence in UK.  

When taking psychedelics, regions of the brain that would normally not interact, are suddenly stimulated, allowing new creative ideas and visions to be seen in what is commonly known as ‘tripping’. The exact effect of these drugs is best explained by Mendel Kaelen, a Dutch post doc, who came up with the snowfall metaphor to describe how these drugs interact with the mind. He explains it as “Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down the hill a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into preexisting trails, almost like a magnet.” This explains the thought processing humans have, a rigid and constant mindset that is hard to escape. “In time it becomes more and more difficult to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction. Think of psychedelics as temporarily flattening the snow. The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways (How to Change Your Mind – Michael Pollan, 2018). This will lead to a new way of thinking by, essentially, rewiring the brain. These new connections change the mind, causing a blissful and peaceful experience that psychedelic users experience during a trip. Allowing the sled to go in a different direction gives potential to change a firm and implanted behavior, such as a smoking or alcohol addiction. People diagnosed with mental illness, like anxiety, depression and PTSD will often have consistent self-degrading and negative thoughts that will prevent them from carrying out daily activities. Psychedelics have the capability of causing fresh snow fall that can get users out of a constant loop of self-depreciating thought. This works by greatly decreasing the activity in the default mode network region of the brain, the area responsible for looming thought and ego of a person. Ultimately, this leads to the mind dissolving the bleak thoughts that people suffering from anxiety and depression regularly face. 

While these drugs are unconventional and a taboo to the general public, their potential as medication should not be disregarded. The controlled use of psychedelics has continuously been proven to be effective in many healthcare studies. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol abuse (Johnson, Garcia-Romeu and Griffiths, 2017) conducted a study on the addiction of smoking. A few psychedelic doses were enough to cause two/three of dependent smokers to quit for at least a year. This treatment was deemed more effective than the most conventional smoking cessation treatments, including varenicline, NRT gum and the patch. In a different study carried out by the Journal of Psychopharmacology (Griffiths et al., 2016), distressed cancer patients waiting to find out if they are now in remission had their anxiety levels measured. After taking only one dose, a pill containing psilocin, all patients felt their anxiety fall tremendously, and some even felt this tranquil effect six months later. Although this study had a relatively small sample size, and the placebo effect is scientifically known, there is promising evidence and a positive basis that psilocin can be used to treat physiological distress. 

And while the studies presented show optimistic results, the placebo effect and the small sample sizes make the study’s dependability debatable. The lack of research for psychedelics is simply due to the stigma of street LSD and the demonizing of the drugs, developing from the 1960s through the Misuse of Drugs Act issued by President Nixon. LSD was first synthesized in 1952, and by the early 1960’s, the counterculture movement had evolved, (Slonecker, 2017), a time in which LSD use was at an all-time high. Considered the symbol for rebellion, youths and rejection of mainstream cultural standards, extreme psychedelic usage resulted in President Nixon commencing ‘a war on drugs’, (Drug Policy Alliance, 2020) ultimately banning the use of psychedelics and placing them in Schedule 1, for having a high potential for abuse with no medical use. Nixon financed federal drug control agencies to manage the psychedelics distribution in the USA, causing the funding for its research of to rapidly decline (Liechti, 2017); approval for studies diminished to next to none. Papers released claimed psychedelics resulted in chromosome damage, birth defects, psychosis, and fatal accidents. However, modern research blatantly shows there is no evidence of organ damage or neuropsychological deficits even at high doses (Das et al., 2016). A population study carried out by the Journal of Psychopharmacology (Johansen and Krebs, 2015), using 20,000 psychedelic users concluded ‘a lifetime of psychedelic usage was associated with a lower likelihood of past year inpatient mental health treatment’, meaning the use of these drugs resulted in a lower chance of being hospitalized for a mental health issue.  The risks advertised in the 1960s were generally false, but the dangers of these drugs are most certainly not close to none. Psychedelics bought illicitly are often laced with other drugs, such as PCP and meth. 

These compounds are powerful, and like most drugs, taken too much can result in disorientation and users harming themselves or others. While studies show psychedelics’ promising use to treat addictions and mental diseases, in the wrong hands they can prove to be fatal. Psychedelics are not typically addictive (NPR, 2019), and in monitored doses, the drugs clearly have capabilities to treat severe conditions. With more funding and research, these drugs can be utilized to their full potential to help patients who might need it. 

References:

Your Complex Brain (no date). Available at: https://www.brainfacts.org/core-concepts/your-complex-brain (Accessed: 1 October 2020).

Study shows how LSD interferes with brain’s signalling | Neuroscience | The Guardian (2019). Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jan/28/study-shows-how-lsd-messes-with-brains-signalling (Accessed: 1 October 2020).

Nichols, D. E. (2016) ‘Psychedelics’, Pharmacological Reviews, 68(2), pp. 264–355. doi: 10.1124/pr.115.011478.

Hallucinogens DrugFacts | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) (2019). Available at: https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/hallucinogens (Accessed: 1 October 2020).

How to Change Your Mind – Michael Pollan — Alex J. Hughes (no date). Available at: https://www.alexjhughes.com/books/2018/5/25/how-to-change-your-mind-michael-pollan (Accessed: 1 October 2020).

Johnson, M. W., Garcia-Romeu, A. and Griffiths, R. R. (2017) ‘Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-facilitated smoking cessation’, American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 43(1), pp. 55–60. doi: 10.3109/00952990.2016.1170135.

Griffiths, R. R. et al. (2016) ‘Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial’, Journal of Psychopharmacology, 30(12), pp. 1181–1197. doi: 10.1177/0269881116675513.

Slonecker, B. (2017) ‘The Counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s’, in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.392.

A Brief History of the Drug War | Drug Policy Alliance (2020). Available at: https://www.drugpolicy.org/issues/brief-history-drug-war (Accessed: 1 October 2020).

Liechti, M. E. (2017) ‘Modern Clinical Research on LSD’, Neuropsychopharmacology. Nature Publishing Group, pp. 2114–2127. doi: 10.1038/npp.2017.86.

Das, S. et al. (2016) ‘Lysergic acid diethylamide: a drug of “use”?’, Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, 6(3), pp. 214–228. doi: 10.1177/2045125316640440.

Johansen, P. O. and Krebs, T. S. (2015) ‘Psychedelics not linked to mental health problems or suicidal behavior: A population study’, Journal of Psychopharmacology, 29(3), pp. 270–279. doi: 10.1177/0269881114568039.

Using Psilocybin To Help Smokers Quit Cigarettes : Shots – Health News : NPR (2019). Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/12/22/774385634/a-new-way-to-quit-psychedelic-therapy-offers-promise-for-smoking-cessation?t=1601577211681 (Accessed: 1 October 2020).

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