Fear and loathing in Amsterdam or This time I went to a conference on psychedelic research

Oh, Amsterdam, the city of sex and drugs! Just kidding, there is certainly more to it than that. Like, for example, piss-drunk British teenagers coming in on these EasyJet weekend flights. Just kidding again! Amsterdam is a great city which I love dearly and just this weekend it hosted the third Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research. So I guess you can say, I came to Amsterdam for drugs. Psilocybin, MDMA, LSD, ayahuasca, mescaline, ibogaine -- everything was covered. It was great seeing how many research groups are investing their efforts in what can be called the psychedelic Renaissance and how many non-scientists were there to gain some knowledge about these often still stigmatised drugs.
So here you go, your fresh fix of psychedelic research!

Image by TomaTheSpook.

Image by TomaTheSpook.

Disclaimer: I might be too enthusiastic about all the amazing research going on but I do not encourage you to just go and recklessly take all the drugs. It is not to be taken carelessly or to abuse. All the drug-taking in the studies I describe was legally approved and done in controlled environment, under supervision and after a health screening. Please remember that while reading.

Robin Carhart-Harris and the effects psychedelics have on your mind. Photo credit: Beckley Foundation

Robin Carhart-Harris and the effects psychedelics have on your mind. Photo credit: Beckley Foundation

1. Psilocybin
I have mentioned this one quite a bit already in this blog so for some of you it might be a repetition, sorry for that. Psilocybin, the main active component of magic mushrooms seems to be a real darling: It has been to shown to increase subjective feelings of well-being, to provide people with a experience of deeply-felt positive mood, love, joy and to make them feel like all is one. The exciting thing is that these effects were long-lasting: Two months after the session people still reported that they feel noticeably better, had a more positive attitude towards life and rated their trip experience among the five most "spiritually significant" experiences of their lifetimes. If that’s not enough, fourteen months later (!!) the effects still persisted.  Having read that it doesn’t come as a surprise that shrooms come in handy in various therapeutic settings. As I recently wrote, patients whose depression didn’t respond to any treatment lastingly benefited from psilocybin: Their symptoms were lifted one week after the treatment and some of them even were symptom-free for the whole three months (As a person with a major depressive disorder I can say that three months without this hell-sent disease is a blessing). It doesn’t stop here. Obsessive-compulsive patients reduced their obsessions and compulsions, cancer patients were able to enjoy life again with depression and anxiety markedly reduced -- all because the doctors gave them psilocybin.

Psychedelics to the rescue! Possibly already in the foreseeable future. Image by TomeTheSpook

Psychedelics to the rescue! Possibly already in the foreseeable future. Image by TomeTheSpook

Speaking on a more fundamental level shrooms bring our mind in a child-like immature state. On psilocybin, the connections within neural networks get weaker, while the connections between the networks get stronger. The networks which normally help to constrain our sensory experiences and ground them in reality become inefficient so that our senses can run free. Also networks maintaining our sense of self take a break and allow for the amazing effect of ego-dissolution. On the other hand, the networks which normally talk to each other as much as Finnish neighbours do, start to communicate like a big Italian family which leads to, among other things, vivid visuals with your eyes closed (your visual brain starts being driven not only by the direct visual input but also by introspection and imagination).        

The well-known illustration of how brain connectivity literally explodes on psilocybin (right).

The well-known illustration of how brain connectivity literally explodes on psilocybin (right).

2. LSD
As the psychonauts among you know, LSD enhances your response to music with every song being a trip in itself. Well, now it is also proven by neuroscientists. Turns out, listening to music while tripping enhances the information flow in the pathway responsible for the complex visual imagery and seeing scenes from your past. So basically even though it is obviously possible to experience visual hallucinations in silence, music is a valuable add-on which enhances your mental imagery and brings out autobiographical scenes connected to it. This can also be of therapeutic usage: Music can help to deepen the psychedelic experience, enhance emotional responses and bring up personally meaningful mental imagery which might have been repressed.

Image by TomaTheSpook.

Image by TomaTheSpook.

3. Ayahuasca
Learning about ayahuasca blew my mind. Due to its almost complete absence in the Western academic discourse everything about it was new and exciting (prior to the conference the only thing I knew was that you puke when you take it. Much informed, very scientist). I learnt that ayahuasca had a rapidly onsetting and long-lasting antidepressive effect for patients with recurring depression. Apparently it achieves that by a lot of different ways. First, after a one-time administration it restored activity in the regions which are abnormally underachieving in depression. Psychological after-effects of the session were very similar to what you would experience after a good mindfulness meditation: A non-reactive and non-judgemental mindset. Of course, the benefits are not reserved for beginners only: In the experienced users one of the key hubs of the network concerned with rumination and self-referential thinking was found to shrink. In depression, this network is overactive and impossible to shut up. So, with one of the most important hubs being weakened it was basically kicked in the balls. This reduction in the cortical thickness was also associated with such personality changes as having less materialistic life attitude, being more spiritual and open-minded. All is one and everything is connected, man, you know. Moreover, ayahuasca promotes neurogenesis -- the birth of new nerve cells. Neurogenesis only happens in a very few brain areas, one of them being hippocampus, a structure responsible for forming new memories and helping connecting them to emotions. And what a coincidence, this region has found to shrink in people with depression leading to a change in all sorts of behaviours associated with emotions and memory. So, you guessed it: Ayahuasca basically might help to restore hippocampal volume and function by inducing a neuronal baby boom.

Baby neurons! Image by TomaTheSpook.

Baby neurons! Image by TomaTheSpook.

4. MDMA
You love everyone, everyone is smiling, everyone is laughing with you, not at you: There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of how MDMA makes you feel loving, trusting, friendly, and sociable. It was fascinating to see how this party drug is being researched in serious studies and even more fascinating to see how fruitful the results are (just to be clear: it is not the same as ecstasy as it does not contain crap they add to the pills). Testing it on a sample of mentally healthy people provided some basics for the typical pro-social behaviour. When on MDMA, people have a hard time recognising negative emotions, but are much better (and biased towards) recognising positive ones. So you're being all friendly and social partly because you just don't perceive negative cues in the faces of others. Another finding has shown a remarkable increase in empathy accompanied by high levels of oxytocin (you might have heard of it as "cuddle hormone", "love molecule" or other overgeneralising names) in the blood. Which makes me wonder whether MDMA could be used to treat psychopaths who are known to lack any empathy whatsoever (please don't steal my idea, I will find you and I will kill you). In some diseases, however, MDMA has already been shown to be quite useful. For example, people suffering from PTSD showed a great improvement up to two month after the end of the treatment. MDMA is thought to losen the grip of the emotions and to reduce the fear connected to the memories so that the trauma can be revisited without being overwhelmed. "The MDMA was like armour that I put all over my body so that I could dive into the darkness of my PTSD, and then come back unscathed", - as one of the patients puts it. Another things MDMA is currently being research for is treatment of social anxiety in people with autism spectrum disorders (to help them to shift towards an attitude of openness and introspection) and anxiety related to life-threatening illnesses (to reduce the disease-induced fear and depression).  

Your perception of negative faces on MDMA is impaired. Only positive ones make it to your consciousness. Image by TomaTheSpook.

Your perception of negative faces on MDMA is impaired. Only positive ones make it to your consciousness. Image by TomaTheSpook.

I really do hope that in the near future the governments will rethink their policy concerning the legal status of psychedelics and allow their medical usage which seems to be needed by many patients groups.

As always, illustrations are provided by amazingly talented Toma.