lyrics and especially at Bill Hick’s quotes.
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Being a neuroscientist means that I’m the go to person among my friends for ‘brain questions’. Today’s post is an extended answer to a friend’s enquiry about magic mushrooms and their negative effects. Because when he asked I couldn’t reliably answer – especially on negative effects, I promised that I’ll look into it. The topic turned out to be very intriguing so I ended up reading many papers, sites and reports and here’s what I found out.
It seems hallucinogenic drugs have been around for ever! Actually they might have contributed to the development of early philosophy and religions. For instance Aztec shaman’s were eating teonanacatl meaning ‘god’s flesh’, none other than the magic mushrooms (Psilocybin mushrooms). In ancient India many Vedic hymns were written about soma, a ritual drink deriving from the plant called the ‘God’s of God’. In ancient Greece anyone (including poor citizens, women and slaves) who had not taken a man’s life could participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries, where kykeon was consumed (a drink presumably made from barley parasitized by ergot, a fungus that releases ergometrine – an LSD chemical precursor). The Native American Church was using peyote (mescaline is the active ingredient) as a sacrament during services and natives in the Amazon valley of South America were using Ayahuasca.. and the list goes on. Actually, Ayahuasca (an infusion of several plants containing DMT and monoamine oxidase inhibitor/MAOI) is still used nowadays in the Brazilian religion Santo Daime, which is spreading in USA and Europe – sometimes resulting in problems with local law but with court rulings in favor of Santo Daime’s members and permission to consume the hallucinogenic tea for religious purposes.
Other names commonly used for hallucinogens are psychedelic, psychotropic, psychotomimetic and more recently entheogens (meaning generating the god within – coming from the greek word entheos). In addition to the religious and recreational use, hallucinogens are also used in psychonautics, a research paradigm where the researcher (referred as psychonaut) voluntarily immerses himself into an altered state of consciousness through mediation or hallucinogens, as a means to explore human experience and existence. And lastly we have hallucinogens to thank for many works of art. If you haven’t done in the beginning, read again the Bill Hick’s quotes. I found especially interesting this testimony from Alex Grey (for full text click here):
Due to its visionary richness, I think the entheogenic experience has great importance for fueling an artistic and cultural renaissance. By giving artists a meaningful experience and access to deeper and higher aspects of their soul, they are given a subject worth making art about. A worthy subject is an artist’s most important discovery — it’s the magnetic passion that burns in their work and attracts them to it, and also determines whether they will attempt to evoke what is deepest and highest in their viewers.
So one would logically wonder why using hallucinogens is illegal in most countries of the world and often accompanied with penalties more severe than having committed a violent crime. Honestly, after everything I’ve read I don’t know!
Hallucinogens (from here on I’m referring only to psilocybin, LSD and mescaline) are generally considered to be physiologically safe molecules whose principal effects are on consciousness. There is no evidence they cause damage to any human body organ. They do not cause life-threatening changes in cardiovascular, renal, or hepatic function. A study by Hasler et al. in 2004 provided no cause for concern that psilocybin is hazardous with respect to somatic health. Concerning adverse effects from repeated use of hallucinogens, if they did occur they were subtle or nonsignificant. In contrast to many other abused drugs, hallucinogens do not engender drug dependence or addiction and are not considered to be reinforcing substances. As opposed to opiates, nicotine, cannabis, phencyclidine (PCP), cocaine, amphetamine, alcohol, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and even caffeine, hallucinogens do not activate the brain reward pathways (in other words they are not addictive).
However when messing with your brain, one can’t expect everything to be happy and good. There are possible side-effects albeit very rare: The most common adverse reactions include vomiting or a bad trip but they are not long lasting. I will focus on effects that might present long after the drug use.
> The first is flashbacks, the re-experiencing of one or more of the perceptual effects that were induced by hallucinogens but occurring after the effect of the drug has worn off or at some later time in the complete absence of the drug. Flashbacks most often appear as visual symptoms and can persist for months or in some cases years, and there appears to be no relationship between frequency of hallucinogen use and rate of occurrence.
> The second is hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD) – in a sense, the persistent version of flashbacks – characterized by a continual presence of sensory disturbances, mostly commonly visual, that are reminiscent of those generated by the ingestion of hallucinogenic substances.
> The third (and most important in my opinion) is that hallucinogens can catalyze the onset of psychosis or depression. In other words, if there is an underlying mental condition, then hallucinogen consumption could result in it’s manifestation. But they do not appear to produce illness de novo in otherwise emotionally healthy persons, but these problems seem to be precipitated in predisposed individuals. A search of Medline in early 2003 for case reports of LSD-induced psychosis found only three reports in the previous 20 years. Therefore, if you’re thinking on experimenting first make sure no one in your family has a history of mental illness.
Conducting scientific studies on hallucinogens, especially with humans is extremely difficult due to current legislation. We do know however that their effects are due to the activation of serotonin receptors of the neocortex and thalamus, also leading to increased glutamate release (serotonin and glutamate are some of the neurotransmitters released from our neurons making possible the transfer of information – sensory, motor, thoughts, memories – between the neurons). Exactly because they act solely on how information is transfered and processed (which is unique for every human, even twins), the effects of hallucinogens are heavily dependent on the expectations/mindset of the user (‘set’) & the environment (‘setting’) in which the use takes place. Moreover high doses do not always produce effects similar to low doses but at greater intensity. So don’t expect to experience the same effects between different trips.
But if hallucinogens are not addictive, what is the motivation for continued use? Do keep in mind that their use is more often episodic, and most people stop using them after some initial experimentation (surveys have shown that hallucinogen use occurs mostly in the late teens and into the early 20s but does not usually continue after users reach their late 20s).
When asked why they use hallucinogens, common responses include use for personal or spiritual development and increased understanding and self-discovery, that their use seems important to them, and that often they feel they gain important personal, religious, or philosophical insights.
All these perceptions can arise as a consequence of the altered cognitive processing in the frontal cortex (the area of the brain where executive decisions and the assessment of significance occurs). It also means that the nature of the reinforcement in humans is primarily cognitive, from perceptions of greater awareness, increased understanding, or profound insights.
The most interesting outcome of my search was finding out about psychedelic therapy. I know it sounds a bit funky, but especially in the ’60s hallucinogens have been used to treat alcoholism and help people suffering from anxiety and other problems associated with terminal illness. The past decade some daring scientists have entered those grounds again, dealt with what I imagine would be a nightmare of bureaucracy and conducted studies on the potential psychiatric therapeutic value of psilocybin and LSD. These are the results:
> In 2006 a team working at John Hopkins Medicine showed that psilocybin produces substantial spiritual effects. In 2008 they did a follow-up to to that research and report that those beneficial effects appear to last more than a year. Most of the volunteers looked back on their experience up to 14 months later and rated it as the most, or one of the five most, personally meaningful and spiritually significant of their lives and regarded it as having increased their sense of well-being or life satisfaction. For the full story click here. For the 2006 research publication click here
> In 2006 researchers used psilocybin in a controlled clinical environment in subjects with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Surprisingly treatment with psilocybin was associated with acute reductions in core OCD symptoms in several subjects. For the full article click here.
> In 2010 a study led by Dr. Charles S. Grob was published and demonstrates that the careful and controlled use of psilocybin may provide an alternative model for the treatment of conditions that are often minimally responsive to conventional therapies, including the profound existential anxiety and despair that often accompany advanced-stage cancers. Full study can be found here.
“We are working with a patient population that often does not respond well to conventional treatments,” said Grob. “Following their treatments with psilocybin, the patients and their families reported benefit from the use of this hallucinogen in reducing their anxiety. This study shows psilocybin can be administered safely, and that further investigation of hallucinogens should be pursued to determine their potential benefits.”
> In 2007, the first therapeutic study with LSD in 35 years started in Switzerland and finished last July. They were investigating LSD-Assisted Psychotherapy for End-of-Life Anxiety. Peter Gaser, the leading psychiatrist reports in his letter:
We also can say that all the 12 participants reported a benefit from the treatment. Comments from the participants include that they see their lives more clearly; that they are more aware of what is important and meaningful and what is not for the remaining time they have; that they are more differentiated in relationships that are helpful and joyful and others that are time and energy consuming. They reported doing good and healthy things like having time for themselves, listening to music they like (or discovering music again) or being more relaxed toward everything that happened in their everyday life.
Read more on this study:
An Interview with Peter Gasser
First therapeutic study of LSD in 35 years finishes treatment of last subject
This post has gotten ridiculously big, so I will wrap it up. Looking for personal testimonies on the net, I discovered Shroomery.org (magic mushrooms demystified) and Erowid.org (documenting the complex relationship between humans and psychoactives). From what I’ve read from users stories, instructions on how to use hallucinogens and precautions they advise, recreational users and psychonauts already know very well the dos and dont’s associated with these drugs. They are also well informed of potential risks. Risks that from what I read are not bigger that driving your car…
Science finally is slowly catching up. It seems that a wealth of information awaits us inside our minds! There is no magic in mushrooms, just molecules affecting our serotonin receptors. Irrational fears should be put aside, and hallucinogens should be recognized for what they are: tools with the potential to help us to understand ourselves and unravel the mystery behind human consciousness… After all what better way to study consciousness, than through altered states of consciousness? Does anyone from the fields of neurophilosophy and cognitive neuroscience disagree?
I would love to hear your opinions on the matter!
Do you have any related question or other ‘brain questions’? Ask away 🙂
Any information on this post without accompanying references was from this review by Nichols published in Pharmacology & Therapeutics (2003).
A very interesting post from the creator of Erwin.org: Towards a culture of responsible psychoactive drug use.
Ecstasy, DMT, and MDMA are also considered as hallucinogens, however they were beyond the scope of this post.