The Beckley Foundation’s Scientific Programme dominated the Friday afternoon session at Psychedelic Science 2017, with representatives from several of our key research collaborations presenting their latest findings to an audience of around 3,000 attendees.
As the driving force behind much of the recent progress in psychedelic research, Amanda Feilding was understandably among the most keenly anticipated speakers, and a packed out room listened to her describe how psychedelic compounds reduce the power of the ego by altering connectivity in the brain’s default mode network (DMN).
Summarising the findings from our recent brain imaging studies involving LSD, psilocybin and ayahuasca, she explained how “this network of hub centres is superimposed upon all the other networks in the brain, and acts rather like the government, or the conductor in an orchestra, dictating what gets through to consciousness, and what does not.”
The musical metaphor was then carried forward by Professor David Nutt, co-director of the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme. Going into greater detail about our research on psilocybin, he revealed how the drug reduces alpha waves in some of the DMN’s key “connector hubs”, such as the posterior cingulate cortex. This prevents these hubs from controlling cognition, which he likened to removing the conductor from a classical orchestra and allowing the players to freely express themselves, resulting in the invention of jazz.
Professor Nutt went on to explain that, like psilocybin, “LSD markedly desynchronises the normal way in which the brain is orchestrated, in a very structured, segmented way.” This reduction synchronicity was found to correlate with feelings of ego-dissolution and led to more creative modes of thinking.
Next up was Mendel Kaelen, also of the Beckley/Imperial Research Programme, who rather appropriately presented his work on the role of music in LSD-assisted psychotherapy.
In his introduction, he mentioned how “transformative technologies” like fire, the wheel and the internet have shaped the nature of our existence and redefined what it means to be human. Now, he says, we are on the hunt for “transformative technologies of the mind”.
Yet this quest does not end with the discovery of psychedelics. Rather, Kaelen insists that while these substances “facilitate an altered state of consciousness,” it is what we do within that state that defines their value.
As his work has shown, introducing music to the LSD experience can increase connectivity between regions of the brain that are involved in processing sound, emotion and memory, which can be hugely beneficial in the psychotherapeutic process.
Mendel’s colleague Leor Roseman then took to the stage to present what he described as “provocative” findings from a Beckley/Imperial brain imaging study into the mechanisms behind the antidepressant effects of psilocybin.
Currently, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are most commonly prescribed for depression, and work by dulling activity in the amygdala, which is responsible for processing emotions.
Yet Roseman’s team discovered that, in the 24 hours after psilocybin treatment, patients displayed an increase in amygdala activity, and that the magnitude of this increase was directly correlated with improvements in symptoms.
In other words, psilocybin helps patients overcome their depression by increasing emotional processing, whereas SSRIs simply null feelings of depression by deactivating emotional processing.
Finally, Jordi Riba of the Beckley/Sant Pau Research Programme presented his recent work on ayahuasca, including a groundbreaking study that found that certain compounds in ayahuasca stimulate the birth of new neurons from stem cells in a petri dish.
He also spoke about how many of the benefits brought about by meditation are also achieved through drinking ayahuasca, as well as how the sacred Amazonian brew increases “divergent thinking”, allowing users to become more creative when problem solving.
Citing the likes of Steve Jobs and Francis Crick, both of whom have credited psychedelics with expanding their visionary capacities, Riba explained that “these people all came up with ideas that were available to anyone, it was just that no one had really thought about them.”
Psilocybin for Depression
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