The Science of Psilocybin Assisted Therapy

Psilocybin-assisted therapy offers a window into the complex interplay between brain chemistry, consciousness, and the therapeutic process.

Unlocking the Mind: The Science of Psilocybin Therapy

The current market of psychopharmaceuticals is stale. Nothing currently on the market promises to get to the root cause of mental health problems. It’s all about symptom management. That’s about to change. 

In recent years, there is a resurgence in the exploration of alternative therapies, specifically psychedelic-enhanced therapies. The process has been slow, but psychedelic medications are poised to go mainstream. Esketamine (derived from ketamine) is now an accepted medication for depression. MDMA is expected to have FDA approval for the treatment of PTSD in late 2023 or 2024 and psilocybin has been decriminalized in Oregon and select cities across America.  

Psilocybin, the active compound found in certain species of mushrooms, has captivated the attention of scientists, therapists, and individuals seeking transformative and lasting healing experiences. Beneath the mystique that covers ‘shrooms lies a wealth of scientific evidence that underscores its potential to revolutionize the way we approach mental health.

History of Psychedelics in the US

The use of psychedelics for therapeutic and spiritual purposes is not a new concept. Indigenous cultures across the world have used various natural substances, including psilocybin-containing mushrooms, for centuries to induce altered states of consciousness and access profound insights. However, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that these substances caught the attention of the Western scientific community.

In the 1950s and 60s, American researchers began to seriously investigate the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, including psilocybin. Initial studies showed promise in treating a range of mental health conditions, from anxiety to depression to addiction. However, in 1968 the US government made psilocybin (the main compound in mushrooms) and psilocin (the compound that allows you to metabolize the psilocybin) illegal.

In 1971 the Nixon administration launched what became known as the War on Drugs. The legislation anchoring the War on Drugs made psilocybin and other psychedelics illegal, forcing not only the widespread recreational use to stop, but also the legitimate scientific research. Not only was psilocybin made illegal, it was villanized as the worst of the worst: Schedule I. This means there is no medical purpose and the propensity for addiction and overdose is high. However, that’s a bit of a headscratcher given that oxycodone, fentanyl, meth and others are Schedule II drugs. Psilocybin has been used for centuries by indigenous peoples without issue.

Psilocybin was made illegal in 1968.

 It leads one to believe the Schedule I classification was politically motivated given Nixon’s political situation and the lack of science to confirm the purported dangers.  This was confirmed in 2016 when President Nixon’s top advisor John Erlichman said, “You want to know what the War on Drugs was really about? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the [Vietnam] war or black… But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

TL/DR:  The danger of psilocybin was knowingly grossly overstated and fraudulently classified as a Schedule I drug so Nixon could spur hatred toward Black Americans and hippies.

The Neurochemistry of Psilocybin

At the heart of psilocybin’s effects lies its interaction with the brain’s intricate neural network. Psilocybin is a prodrug, meaning it’s metabolized in the body to produce its active form, psilocin. In the body, psilocin’s molecular structure is strikingly similar to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a pivotal role in regulating mood, emotions, and thoughts. This similarity allows psilocin to bind to specific serotonin receptors, notably the 5-HT2A receptor, leading to a cascade of effects that set off the psychedelic experience.

In a therapeutic setting, this altered state of consciousness can be fantastic for greater introspection and self-discovery. It’s thought that psilocybin temporarily reduces activity in the default mode network (DMN), a network of brain regions associated with how you think about yourself and your own importance. The reduction in DMN activity is likely the reason psilocybin promotes letting go of rigid thought patterns and allows you to be receptive to new perspectives and insights.

TL/DR: Psilocybin allows you to be introspective about yourself without rejecting or shaming yourself.

The Dance of Neural Networks

Psilocybin’s effects extend beyond individual neurotransmitter interactions. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have revealed profound changes in brain connectivity during a psilocybin experience. Normally distinct and separate networks in the brain, such as the default mode network and the task-positive network, become more interconnected. This breakdown of the typical boundaries between these networks is believed to underlie the sense of interconnectedness and unity often reported by individuals during a psychedelic journey.

This dissolution of barriers in the brain also contributes to the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin-assisted therapy. Conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are often characterized by rigid and ingrained thought patterns. The temporary reconfiguration of neural networks caused by psilocybin could offer individuals the opportunity to break free from these patterns and explore alternative ways of perceiving and understanding their experiences.

TL/DR:  In a therapeutic setting psilocybin gives users a better opportunity to change rigid thought and behavior patterns, which can relieve depression and anxiety.

Beyond Symptom Suppression: The Therapeutic Process

psilocybin mushroom

Psilocybin-assisted therapy is not merely about alleviating symptoms but engaging in a deep and transformative therapeutic process. Unlike conventional pharmaceutical interventions, which often focus on symptom management, this therapy aims at addressing the root causes of mental health conditions. During a session, a therapist (often called a guide) provides a safe and supportive environment to guide the individual to explore their inner landscape.

The experience itself can be challenging, with individuals confronting suppressed emotions, traumatic memories, and aspects of themselves they might have avoided. However, this process of confronting and working through these issues is central to the therapeutic benefit of psilocybin-assisted therapy. The altered state of consciousness induced by psilocybin can enhance the individual’s capacity for introspection, self-reflection, and emotional processing, fostering insights and breakthroughs that can catalyze lasting change.

 

The Road Ahead: Research and Integration

The science behind psilocybin-assisted therapy is very promising. But it’s essential to note that the field is still in its infancy. Scholarly research is necessary to quantify the efficacy and long-term outcomes of this therapy. Clinical trials are ongoing, examining its potential for treating conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction.

Furthermore, the integration of the experiences induced by psilocybin is a critical aspect of the therapeutic process. Without proper guidance and support, individuals might struggle to make sense of their insights and experiences. Integration involves working with a therapist to process and incorporate the insights gained during the psychedelic experience to their everyday life. It’s in this integration phase that the transformative potential of psilocybin-assisted therapy truly takes root.

TL/DR:  The mental health benefits of psilocybin are currently being studied, but we do know that it’s only therapeutic if you work with a therapist during and after the dose to guide and process your experience.  Otherwise, it’s just “doing ‘shrooms.”

Closing Thoughts

Psilocybin-assisted therapy offers a window into the complex interplay between brain chemistry, consciousness, and the therapeutic process. Beyond the allure of using a psychedelic compound, this therapy holds the promise of unlocking new, more effective treatments that get at the root cause, not just symptom management. 

It is a very exciting time as we are on the precipice of a paradigm shift in mental health. The fear and villainization of psychedelics is waning.   They are a useful and legitimate enhancement of traditional talk therapy. Through a combination of rigorous research, responsible implementation, and a deep commitment to ethical and patient-centered care, psilocybin-assisted therapy will be a transformative force in mental health.  

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