Scientists are interested in studying psychedelic substances because they have the potential to alter perception, cognition, and mood in ways that may be beneficial for treating a variety of mental health conditions. Some studies suggest that certain psychedelics may have therapeutic effects for conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, and end-of-life anxiety.
The most commonly studied psychedelic drugs include psilocybin (the active compound found in “magic” mushrooms), lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD, also known simply as “acid”), dimethyltryptamine (or DMT, a naturally occurring psychedelic compound found in many plants and animals), and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (known as MDMA or molly, a synthetic drug that produces both psychedelic and stimulant effects).
Below are five recent scientific discoveries related to psychedelic substances and their therapeutic potential.
1. People tend to learn from feedback faster under the influence of LSD.
Research published in Psychological Medicine suggests that LSD can help people learn faster when receiving feedback and enhances exploratory behavior. The study investigated the effects of LSD on learning and decision-making in humans, with the ultimate goal of identifying the psychological mechanisms by which LSD could have potential therapeutic benefits for mental health.
The researchers found that LSD increased the speed at which participants updated their expectations based on feedback, making them quicker to learn from their experiences than those who took a placebo. Additionally, those who took LSD were more exploratory in their behaviour, meaning that they were more likely to try new options when making decisions. By enhancing the rate at which people learn from feedback and increasing exploratory behavior, LSD may help individuals with mental health issues break free from negative thought patterns and develop new, more positive associations.
2. Psilocybin-assisted therapy helps to reduce rumination and thought suppression symptoms.
Depression is a challenging mental illness with many difficult symptoms, and traditional treatment methods, such as antidepressants, can have unwanted side effects. Psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy is an alternative treatment method that uses psilocybin in combination with talk therapy to treat depression. A recent study compared the effects of psilocybin to those of the antidepressant escitalopram on depressive symptoms related to rumination and negative thought suppression.
The study found that participants who received psilocybin treatment showed significantly greater improvements in both rumination and thought suppression symptoms related to depression. In both the SSRI and the psychedelic groups, rumination improved by the 6-week mark, which could imply that rumination is a particularly treatable symptom of depression. However, participants who received escitalopram did not show the same improvements in thought suppression as those who received psilocybin treatment.
The subjective effects of psychedelics, such as ego dissolution and psychological insights, were linked to decreases in both rumination and thought suppression, indicating advantages of the psychedelic treatment. The study suggests that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy could be a more effective treatment method for depression related to rumination and negative thought suppression. However, the approach is still experimental, and more research is needed to determine its efficacy.
3. MDMA-assisted therapy could alter how the brain responds to traumatic recollections.
Recent research suggests that combining therapy with MDMA administration could be an effective treatment approach. MDMA is a synthetic drug that alters mood and perception, producing feelings of increased energy, pleasure, emotional warmth, and distorted sensory and time perception. MDMA is thought to lower the fear response associated with traumatic memories, which could help patients with PTSD process their traumatic experiences.
A study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that patients who received MDMA-assisted therapy (MDMA-AT) experienced significant reductions in PTSD symptom severity and changes in brain activity after 2 months of treatment.
The study included nine patients with moderate-to-severe PTSD who were exposed to traumatic and neutral audio recordings of personal events inside an MRI scanner. After 2 months of MDMA-AT treatment, patients experienced a significant decrease in PTSD symptom severity, with an average reduction of 57%. Additionally, before therapy the brain showed higher activity in areas involved in fear, emotion and autobiographical memories when patients listened to traumatic recordings of their past experiences compared to neutral recordings.
After therapy, there was no significant difference in brain activity between these two types of recordings, suggesting a reduced intensity of the recollection of traumatic memories. However, further research with larger sample and control populations is needed to fully understand the changes in brain function associated with MDMA-AT treatment and to determine the long-term effects of this treatment approach.
4. Psychedelic drugs could help US Special Operations Forces Veterans fight alcohol abuse.
A recent study published in Military Psychology suggests that a combination of ibogaine and 5-MeO-DMT treatments might help reduce alcohol misuse and symptoms of PTSD in US Special Operations Forces Veterans. The study found that the participants who underwent the treatment had a significant reduction in alcohol misuse, which lasted for six months. There was also a strong reduction in symptoms of PTSD. Ibogaine is a hallucinogenic compound derived from the roots of a West African shrub, while 5-MeO-DMT is a psychedelic substance found in a number of plant species and Colorado river toads.
The study involved 45 US Special Operations Forces Veterans, all male, who were undergoing treatment in Mexico. Before undergoing the treatment, the participants were screened to ensure they had no substances in their body that would make the treatment unsafe. The participants then underwent the treatment and completed psychological assessments before the start of the treatment, and again 1 month, 3 months, and 6 months after the treatment.
Although there was a large overall improvement, some veterans continued to engage in risky drinking, even after treatment. At the 1-month follow-up, 24% were abstinent, 33% were engaging in non-risky drinking, and 42% were still risky drinkers. The researchers behind the study hope that results will show the positive effects of psychedelic-assisted therapy, as many veterans have not responded to established treatments for PTSD and alcohol misuse.
5. LSD produces an “afterglow” effect for memory performance but a “hangover” for cognitive flexibility.
A study published in European Neuropsychopharmacology found that LSD appears to have both positive and negative effects on cognitive functioning that can be observed on the day after consumption. The study utilized a crossover design, with twenty-four healthy volunteers randomly assigned to receive either 50 μg LSD or an inactive placebo during one testing session. Two weeks later, the volunteers completed a second testing session in which they were assigned to the other condition.
The researchers found that LSD was associated with improved visuospatial memory and improved verbal fluency the next morning, but also impaired cognitive flexibility, or the ability to switch quickly between different tasks.
The findings indicate that while LSD appears to have beneficial effects on certain aspects of cognition, it can also have negative effects. Nevertheless, the study hints at the potential of psychedelics to improve functions related to memory and language, and therefore, the substance should be further explored as a therapeutic adjunct in conditions involving memory and language declines, such as stroke, brain injuries, and dementia. However, future studies still need to investigate whether factors such as different dosages, repeated doses, and different intervals after dosing might have influenced the results.