Magic Mushrooms, the Future of Mental Health Treatment

By Natasha Kisseroudis

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is gaining popularity due to its effectiveness in mitigating mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and addiction. This article will summarise the findings of a systematic study review conducted by Wheeler and Dyer in 2020. 

Patient responses to psychedelic-assisted treatment

The effectiveness of psychedelics arises from their ability to alter consciousness in a way that allows for a deeper healing experience as opposed to non-psychedelic-assisted therapy which only taps into ordinary states of consciousness. Specifically, patients under psychedelic influence experience distortions of reality, distorted perception and a disintegration of the self which allows them to objectively confront, accept and resolve their emotions arising from trauma, grief and psychological pain. This contrasts with traditional medication and therapy, which patients describe as reinforcing a feeling of disconnection and emotional avoidance (Wheeler and Dyer, 2020).

Use of magic mushrooms in therapy

Magic mushrooms contain a psychedelic substance known as psilocybin, which can either be  extracted or synthesized in the lab (Bogusz, 2008). It is used to assist psychotherapy related to various mental disorders. For example, psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy sessions have been effective in alleviating anxiety and depression associated with terminal cancer diagnoses in patients up to 6.5 months after the session. During psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy patients reported having experienced emotional catharsis, revised their life priorities, felt compassion for themselves and accepted death (Wheeler and Dyer, 2020).

Psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy has also been effectively used to aid recovery from treatment resistant depression. Specifically, it causes patients to move from feeling “disconnected” to “connected”, and from avoiding their emotions to accepting and surrendering to them. Such results have not been accomplished using traditional psychotherapy approaches (Wheeler and Dyer, 2020).

Lastly, psilocybin has shown effectiveness in treating substance use disorders, such as alcohol and nicotine addiction. The first study conducted using psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to treat nicotine dependence showed abstinence in 80% of participants 6 months after the session (Wheeler and Dyer, 2020). A follow-up randomised controlled trial revealed abstinence in 66% of participants 54 weeks after the session. These participants attributed their ability to quit smoking to the psychedelic assisted psychotherapy (Wheeler and Dyer, 2020). In the second study aiming to alleviate alcohol dependence, alcohol consumption decreased for up to 8 weeks following psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy (Wheeler and Dyer, 2020).

Effects of psychedelics on the brain

Wheeler and Dyer’s review mentions studies which have shown that psychedelics influence the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with emotion (Seymour and Dolan, 2008) differently to conventional medication used to treat depression and anxiety, such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. Patients who have received psilocybin-assisted therapy or SSRI administration were shown a series of neutral and emotional faces, whilst their neurobiological activity was monitored. Increased activity in the amygdala was observed in the psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy group, particularly in response to fearful faces. Meanwhile, the SSRI group showed decreased activity in the amygdala in response to fearful faces (Wheeler and Dyer, 2020). These opposite effects may be linked to reports that psychedelics encourage emotional confrontation and acceptance, whereas SSRIs numb emotions.

Psychedelics decrease the oscillatory power and functional connectivity of the default mode network (DMN) to varying extents (Wheeler and Dyer, 2020). The DMN has been associated with the subjective sense of self and may be the physiological source of the ego (Wheeler and Dyer, 2020). It is believed that the ego dissolution achieved by psychedelics corresponds to an alteration in DMN function, which results in the therapeutic experiences for the patients (Wheeler and Dyer, 2020). Although much is still unknown and more research needs to be conducted, psychedelics have a promising future in psychotherapy.

References:

  1. Bogusz, M., 2008. Handbook of analytical separations. Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp.175-201.
  1. Seymour, B. and Dolan, R., 2008. Emotion, Decision Making, and the Amygdala. Neuron, 58(5), pp.662-671.
  1. Wheeler, S. and Dyer, N., 2020. A systematic review of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for mental health: An evaluation of the current wave of research and suggestions for the future. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 7(3), pp.279-315.

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