How Psychedelics Work in the Brain

There are different studies to understand psychedelics and how they work fully. In this article, I’ll take you through a recent study that challenges the general knowledge of the neuroscience of psychedelics and the brain. 

Neurotransmitter pathways are mostly known for their contributions to drug-induced hallucinogenic experiences. For example, the most implicated drugs are LSD and psilocybin, according to new findings. 

Some researchers in the United States and Canada now utilize natural language processing. This involves using computers to interpret the speech patterns of different people. The aim is to check for patterns in a database of over 7,000 real-world hallucinogenic experiences of 27 different drugs. 

These researchers mapped the affinity for different hallucinogenic substances on neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. This was a way of getting active spots in the brain, following the identification of these receptors. You’ll find the results they got in Science Advances, which challenge our knowledge of how hallucinogenic drugs work. 

The research work was to understand the nature of human consciousness better. Danilo Bzdok, a computer scientist and medical doctor at McGill University Canada and one of the researchers, gave his account. 

He finds psychedelics interesting because it’s a mechanistically defined window to human consciousness. This is due to how the drugs bind to receptors in the brain, thereby bringing about changes in consciousness. 

The Research Background

For many years now, people use different substances to cause changes in their levels of consciousness. It includes the use of peyote by the pre-Columbina societies, which has now evolved to different substances today. Examples of these substances include LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin. Scientists now have an interest in how these substances treat mental health conditions and change consciousness in people. 

Despite the use of these substances for many years, it’s only recently that scientific communities began exploring them. The exploration is now to widely understand how the substances work on the brain and alter consciousness. Most of these drugs only affect certain types of serotonin receptors, which are 5-HT2A. Research is still ongoing to understand how they affect other receptors. 

This is the main factor that inspired Danilo and his team. As soon as they saw that people were obsessed with serotonin, they needed to explore further for more insights. 

What they did

Danilo and the other researchers made use of language processing tools to identify real-world patterns from over 7,000 hallucinogenic experiences. 

Suppose you have two Excel sheets: on one sheet, you count the occurrence of about 15,000 words from testimonies. They did not randomly pick the words, and the words were mostly things like “moving,” “color,” and “happy. They were able to develop archetypes of drug-induced shifts in consciousness from this. 

On the second sheet were the affinities of different neurotransmitter receptors. This was basically the starting point, from which you can get two extra sheets and 7.000 rows. On one row are the words, and on the other is receptor affinity.

With this, the researchers were able to analyze the drugs from each receptor. In addition, they were also able to link the changes in consciousness with each set of receptors. This was how they were able to map out the semantic structure and elements that drive psychedelic experiences. 

What they found

Their findings indicate that hallucinogenic experiences like ego dissolution are not from 5-HT2A receptors alone. They were due to the activities of neighboring receptors too. The study also shows the relationship between drugs and receptors in producing auditory, physical, and visual experiences. This includes side effects like vomiting and nausea. 

Their findings made it clear that areas we thought were responsible for visual hallucinations were linked with other brain areas. 

What’s next?

Psychedelic drugs are generally known to alter levels of consciousness and treat mental health conditions. Their use also includes the management of treatment-resistant depression and PTSD. However, we can only fully harness the potential of these drugs if we understand how they work. We need to understand how they work on a neurobiological level. 

The study helps us understand how the drugs act on different receptors and their exact receptors. It also shows us how the receptors bring about different types of experiences. 

Psychedelics use now includes the treatment of different mental health conditions because they are effective. Their effectiveness allows us to better understand these conditions. Therefore, understanding how the drugs work for various conditions is equally important for successful treatment. 

For more information, visit our blog to learn more about psychedelics and microdosing

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