When taking a psychedelic drug, people often say they find extraordinary meaning and significance in mundane objects. This quality makes the drug LSD an eligible subject of study when trying to discover what parts of the brain are responsible for the activation of certain emotions and feelings.
Research involving LSD and other types of hallucinogenic drugs have been ignored for the past 30 or 40 years due to fear from the general public, but people are finally coming around to the idea.
A recent study published by the University of Zurich tested how the drug affected people’s ability to create meaning. They found that specific neurochemicals and receptors are responsible for this feeling of meaning. With this knowledge, researchers can better understand what triggers parts of the brain to start or seize function.
In the experiment, participants were given either LSD, a placebo or LSD with a drug called ketanserin, which blocks the ability of LSD to act on 5-HT2A serotonin receptors. After the drug had kicked in, songs that were previously meaningless to the participants took on a new, special meaning. This didn’t occur nearly as much with the participants who took ketanserin along with LSD.
Of course, the patients in these experiments were all supervised by psychologists and psychiatrists in order to ensure no one would experience a “bad trip” or a wave of panic.
PSUC professor of biological science Donald Slish said this is an exciting field of research, and he’s glad the public is coming around to it. Slish said the use of LSD on patients with “wrong patterns” in the brain can help “reset” the brain in order to start fresh. Having psychiatrists present ensure the patient is properly reoriented after the trip. This type of therapy has been used for various disorders, according to Slish.
“It’s been used in addiction, obsessive compulsion disorder, depression, a lot of different things have to do with wrong thought patterns in the brain,” Slish said.
Although experiments including LSD have been occurring for only about five years, this kind of research has helped professionals discover what can make a better anti-depression and anti-anxiety medication.
Since everyone has different pathways of thought in their brain, you sometimes “get stuck in a rut and you go back and forth between your thoughts and these negative feelings about yourself,” according to Slish.
The use of psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic compound found in mushrooms, could be helpful in reworking certain parts of the brain to reactivate feelings of meaning.
Jennifer Bremser, PSUC assistant professor of psychology, said the use of psilocybin is very safe in this kind of research. This compound could potentially be used to produce an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety effect in people who have experienced a life threatening illness as well.
Bremser said she believes our brains are “uncomfortable with uncertainty” and this produces a feeling of dread. She explained that existential dread is when we recognize our own mortality and begin to contemplate things such as death and pain. This can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety or paranoia. Terror management theory is the idea that giving meaning to one’s life gets rid of this dread and negative feelings.
Ways to combat existential dread could be adopting different ideologies or cultural beliefs, according to Bremser.
“I think the potential clinical or therapeutic effects of psychedelic drugs are the most interesting,” Bremser said.
Learning more about how these drugs affect the brain creates a better understanding of what mechanisms in the brain cause depression and anxiety in the first place.
The recreational use of LSD to treat certain psychiatric disorders could be as short as five to 10 years away if these experiments continue to provide new information about the brain.
“It’s not at the point now where everyone should be doing this,” Slish said. “They’re still learning a lot about it.”
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