Psychedelic medicine, in tandem with neuroscience and genetics, could transform how we treat mental health and industries related to wellness.
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s what wasn’t working. We all want to get back to a “new normal” and take the lessons we’ve learned from our time in the pandemic and apply them to this new year. But big changes—mentally, emotionally, and otherwise—are easier said than done.
Routine, structure, and order can be a good thing day to day, but to “upgrade” our system, we need a mental “reset.” That sounds like a simple concept, but it’s actually difficult for humans to make drastic changes. First, our brains are wired to be resistant to change. Brain scans show that when we try to convince people to overcome their confirmation bias and reveal a fact that does not confirm their bias, their brains react as if they were in pain. Second, our brains are wired to be lazy. They take in countless pieces of data at any point and try to make sense of the information through shortcuts like pattern recognition that aren’t always accurate (gsb.columbia.edu).
Even when we go through stages of change, we can rotate between the stages of action, relapse and contemplation. Acknowledging the relapse as part of change and treating it as a learning opportunity promotes flexibility, self-compassion and curiosity, which facilitates problem-solving and a faster return to action (accelerate.uofuhealth.utah.edu).
Knowing what our brain is doing in certain emotional states can tell us a lot about the potential for psychedelics to aid us in our journey to self-growth and making the more difficult but necessary life changes.
Cognitive Function, Hormones, and Nootropics
Scientists have long studied the link between hormonal changes and neuronal networks, neuroplasticity, and cognitive function. We know that hormonal function is important in maintaining the development of cognitive function and human growth.
Depression is a common mental illness and impairs not only emotional and social cognition but also non-emotional functions such as planning and problem-solving. The brain of someone suffering from depression is more exposed to stress hormones; elevated cortisol levels disrupt sleep. Chronic stress changes the brain chemicals which modulate cognition and mood, including serotonin, which is important for mood regulation and wellbeing. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) restore the functional activity of serotonin in the brain in people with depression (TheConversation.com).
A 2020 study done with rats concluded that high-protein, low-calorie, diets increased Klotho/FGF23 hormone levels, showing potential in enhancing neuronal plasticity, memory, and improved memory function.
In recent years, nootropics, or nutraceutical compounds or supplements focused on cognitive benefits, have gained market popularity. Synthetic or naturally derived, they promote improved mental functions such as memory, creativity, motivation, and attention, though there can be side effects. One study in 2016 done using choline bitartrate found no positive effect on the memory of young, healthy adults.
This Is Your Brain on Psychedelics
Certain psychedelics stick to serotonin receptors called 5-HT2A in the central nervous system, producing “trippy” effects. They also seem to affect a framework in the brain called the default mode network (DMN) or default network, a series of brain regions that typically light up when your attention is inside yourself and not on the outside world, in states of resting, daydreaming, recalling memories, envisioning the future, and so on. Disruptions in the DMN are relevant in Alzheimer’s disease, autism, schizophrenia, depression, chronic pain, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among other disorders.
On a hallucinogen, the DMN calms down and its connections and oscillations change. In their paper published in 2017, Roland Griffiths and Frederick Barrett at Johns Hopkins University suspected that disrupting the DMN results in the opposite: the “dissolution of the self,” or losing your sense of being a lone individual. This could also explain the feeling of “oneness” or connectedness to everything outside who we are.
In the first study of brain scans done on 20 healthy volunteers given LSD in 2016, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris said, “…the brain in the LSD state resembles the state our brains were in when we were infants: free and unconstrained. This also makes sense when we consider the hyper-emotional and imaginative nature of an infant’s mind.”
The brains of children are in a (biologically) “plastic state” while children are thinking about, interacting with, and learning to adapt to, their environment. As we get older, our brain loses its plasticity. Scientists suggest that psychedelics can put us back into a similar plastic state as when we were children.
“The idea with dreaming is that your brain returns to a slightly more plastic state and that accounts for some of the weirdnesses that we experience in our dreams. Plus, it’s your brain’s way of reorganizing information into something more adaptive.”
-Dr. James Rucker, King’s College London
Research done over decades has suggested that psychedelics drugs can break old mental patterns, combat addictions, alleviate depression, alleviate fears, and improve relationships. A recently published study showed that psychedelics reduced symptoms of racial trauma among black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) subsequent to an experience of racism. In other studies, test subjects and recreational users alike report mystical or spiritual experiences, further contributing to sustained changes in “normal” life.
In 2019, American professional boxer Mike Tyson spoke publicly about smoking 5-MeO-DMT and how it inspired him to get back in shape, resulting in a well-publicized fight against Roy Jones Jr. in late 2020.
A Bridge to the Personalization of Medicine
Besides pharmaceutical and psychedelic medicine, we may also see genetics play a more important role in our health and wellness. In essence, what our “nature” says about us. Genetic testing can tell us what patterns we might adapt from our biological parents: sight, cholesterol levels, dietary intolerances, chronic diseases, academic performance, and social popularity, as examples.
People are less likely to suffer from depression and problems in cognition if they have a better cognitive reserve. For someone genetically predisposed to comorbidity, or the presence of one or more concurrent conditions, pharmacological solutions may be more beneficial to get them to an optimal functional state.
A recently published review in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology outlined the potential for psychedelic therapies to treat athletes, who are known to experience mental health disorder symptoms and psychological distress at similar, if not higher, rates compared to the general public. The review defined the research required to demonstrate the feasibility, safety, and efficacy of psychedelics in athletes, and described the rationale for their use, the sport-specific considerations and challenges that must be addressed, and the role of sports clinicians.
If you started meditating, doing a new fitness routine, or eating more healthy in 2020, you need not abandon these practices for something more adventurous in the future. With more research information and safety profiles on psychedelic medicines, the options will eventually reveal themselves and become more available to help with difficult-to-treat disorders.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. We advise readers to always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.