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Psychedelic Effects on the Brain

The scientific community has jumped on the bandwagon admirably in psychedelics, psychedelic therapy, and guided psychedelic journeys

In states like Rhode IslandColorado, and California, local advocacy groups and legislators have tabled bills to decriminalize substances like psilocybin and dimethyltryptamine (DMT). In Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has published a statement suggesting that psilocybin-containing mushrooms, also known as magic mushrooms, should be reclassified as Schedule IV drugs.

This is based on active clinical trials investigating potential medical health benefits to patients. It is a veritable step in the direction of user freedom to possess, use, and even share their mushrooms for non-medical consumption. But what is the distinction?

This article will explore this subject, asking how hallucinogens affect the brain, which substances are classified as hallucinogenic, and where they come from (natural or synthetic)

Where Do You Find Hallucinogenic Substances?

“Psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), peyote (mescaline), and dimethyltryptamine (DMT) are some of the most common “classic hallucinogens.” – DiscoverMagazine.com

Psilocybin is found in fungi, specifically certain species of mushrooms with common names like liberty caps and golden tops. Peyote is derived from a small cactus found in Mexico and western Texas in the United States: the active compound is called mescaline. It can be created synthetically in a laboratory. DMT is a white crystalline powder derived from plants found in Mexico, South America, and parts of Asia.

How Hallucinogens Affect a Person’s Brain

These substances create distortions in time and space in the user’s mind: where they are and what they are doing becomes part of an illusion or hallucination without separating what is real and unreal.

These substances affect how someone thinks and feels after entering the bloodstream and take effect in the central nervous system. Peyote, ayahuasca, and DMT are used in indigenous cultural healing rituals and have a long history of facilitation by trained shamans. Magic mushrooms are used similarly but in secular or non-religious sessions (usually arranged by learned enthusiasts).

The purpose is to allow people to explore their own consciously-held and subconsciously-held beliefs in an awakened, conscious mindset. Hallucinogens cause the subject to experience reality in an altered state, amplifying sensory stimuli with a false or unreal perception—it triggers their mind and body to relax and conjures up imagery and sensations. Their beliefs are transformed into images or scenes they interact with directly in real-time.

What is Psilocybin?

Psilocybin comes from certain types of mushrooms. Psilocybin is metabolized in the body to the active drug psilocyn, also present in many of the same mushrooms. When this substance is ingested, it produces feelings of euphoria and sensory hallucinations that the effects can last for 4-8 hours depending on dosage.

How Psilocybin Affects the Brain

In a 2022 psychotherapy study, a group of subjects who had treatment-resistant depression was given a set dose of psilocybin, and another group was given a set dosage—but were not told whether they were given psilocybin or a placebo (in this clinical trial, it was Escitalopram, an antidepressant).

The study found that psilocybin allowed the subject’s brain to reorder their neural connections, especially between previously strongly connected parts in the depressive state of mind. This allowed them to think differently, i.e., create new thought patterns and increased connections to other parts of the brain. This is strong evidence that psilocybin positively changes the subject’s brain under clinical conditions and/or in guided journeys.

What is LSD?

LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is a powerful psychedelic drug that alters a person’s perception, thoughts, emotions, and feelings. It has been used recreationally since the 1950s and continues to be an important part of many spiritual or therapeutic practices. The effects of LSD can last from six to twelve hours.

How Does LSD Affect the Brain?

LSD works by mimicking serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps control memory, mood, sleep, appetite, and other basic functions. When ingested, LSD binds to serotonin receptors in the brain’s cortex and prefrontal cortex areas, causing temporary changes in these regions. This creates what scientists call “neuroplasticity,” meaning the brain can temporarily rewire itself.

This neuroplasticity can change how a person perceives and interprets their surroundings, resulting in hallucinations, distorted senses of time and space, and altered emotions. It also opens up pathways for creative thought processes, which can be used for spiritual or therapeutic purposes.

However, it is important to note that LSD does not permanently alter brain chemistry – it only creates temporary changes that dissipate over time. Therefore, LSD can be used safely as long as users are aware of potential risks (such as panic attacks due to paranoia caused by the drug) and take necessary safety precautions, such as having a sober support group present during use.

What is Peyote?

Peyote is a small cactus used for centuries by Indigenous People of the Americas in traditional religious ceremonies. It contains the psychedelic compound mescaline, which, when ingested, produces intense mind-altering effects. The effects of peyote can last anywhere from eight to twelve hours, including altered perception, visual hallucinations, increased empathy, and a feeling of connection with nature.

How Does Peyote Affect the Brain?

The active compound mescaline interacts with several neurotransmitter systems in the brain, including those related to serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine – chemicals associated with mood and emotion regulation. Mescaline also binds to opioid receptors which are responsible for controlling pain and pleasure.

When ingested, the mescaline binds to these receptors and alters their normal functioning, producing a range of physical and psychological effects. These can include an increased heart rate, dilated pupils, feelings of euphoria, and insights into one’s own conscious state.

Peyote also has the potential for therapeutic applications. Studies have shown it can effectively treat symptoms of depression, anxiety, and addiction by helping individuals gain insight into their emotional states. Furthermore, peyote has been found to promote feelings of connection to nature which can help improve overall well-being.

It is important to remember that peyote should always be taken under the supervision of an experienced guide or healer knowledgeable about the risks associated with its use. With care and respect, peyote can be used safely to explore different states of consciousness.

What is DMT?

DMT (dimethyltryptamine) is a naturally-occurring psychedelic compound found in many plants and animals, including humans. It produces intense visual and auditory hallucinations that last several minutes to an hour, depending on the dose. In the 1950s, researchers first reported its psychotropic properties, and it has since become widely used as a recreational drug.

How Does DMT Affect the Brain?

DMT binds to serotonin receptors in the brain which are involved in perception, cognition, and mood regulation. When ingested, DMT has powerful effects on consciousness by reproducing feelings of out-of-body experiences or transcendent states of consciousness. It can also create altered states of awareness, such as heightened awareness of color and sound and the perception of “otherworldly” entities.

DMT has also been studied for its potential therapeutic benefits, such as relieving depression and anxiety, bringing spiritual insights, and promoting creativity. While research is still in its infancy, preliminary studies suggest that DMT may have promise in treating various mental health issues.

However, it is important to remember that DMT should only be used under the supervision of an experienced guide or healer who can help users take necessary safety precautions and understand the risks associated with its use. With care and respect, DMT can provide remarkable transformative experiences. ​

How Do Psychedelics in General Affect the Brain

Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, American psychologists became fascinated with psychedelics, leading to increased research into recreational and therapeutic applications. The primary question was how—a question that remains largely unanswered.

“They asked how psychedelics reshape consciousness, perception, and cognition; how these drugs shake people’s sense of self; and whether psychedelics could be used to treat psychiatric disorders.” – Nature.com

It is believed that the brain’s neural pathways, linked to the brain’s chemistry, create the subject’s mindset. What they comprehend and understand is finely tuned in their brain’s cognition and replayed through lived experience. Psychedelic drugs that can be created synthetically find their way onto the open market, primarily via black market trade. This has provided an unofficial view into user experiences of substances like LSD.

Some users report experiencing paranoia, panic attacks, and hallucinations outside controlled experiments—without a trained facilitator. Some users regard the altered state as a “spiritual experience” wherein they believe they are engaging with their higher consciousness or having an out-of-body experience. Often this is seen as valuable: a necessary vantage point that unlocks the mind from its usual day-to-day experience of the self.

This can have a positive or negative impact, depending on their regular thought patterns and their propensity for positive self-acknowledgment. But having a trained facilitator, like a psychiatrist or psychologist, can help ease and direct a depressed user’s thoughts during the experience. Someone without a diagnosed mental health problem could feel fear and insecurity and have a “bad trip” as a result. However, the effects do not last too long.

Eventually, the body processes the active chemicals, and their effects dissipate. At this point, someone may be left with a fading impression or a permanent effect: a loss of the sense of reality in which they feel safe and well-adjusted. In these cases, the potential for a damaging mental health condition increases. While this has been the case for many in the past, a new awareness and understanding of psychedelics have rendered a more positive experience and outcome for the individual.

To avoid the adverse effects associated with psychedelics, as mentioned previously, a facilitator must be present, the right environment and mind frame created, and the individual made fully aware of the potency of psychedelics on the brain.

Source: useful reading from Johns Hopkins about psychedelic research and behavior

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