Investigation of psychedelic medicines progresses on two fronts. On one hand the psychedelic medicines MDMA and psilocybin have been studied for their effectiveness in the treatment of depression and PTSD. At the same time basic research progresses in elucidating the precise effects of psychedelic medicines on the brain. The goal is to fully understand how it is that psychedelics work to improve conditions like PTSD and thereby reduce the risk of suicide by those who suffer from these mental disorders. In this regard, a new study sheds light on brain synchronization with psychedelics.
Psychedelics Help Connect and Organize Brain Activity
An animal study conducted at Lund University in Sweden used a new process for measuring brain activity simultaneously in 128 different areas in an awake subject. The researchers used the process to measure what happened when the subjects were given psychedelic medicines. The result was a synchronization of neurons across several brain regions. When comparing LSD and ketamine the researchers saw synchronization in both cases but different responses. Subjects given LSD and ketamine had suppression and activation of different sets of neurons in different parts of the brain.
Psychedelic Experience at the Brain Level
What researchers are trying to sort out are the commonalities and differences between the various psychedelics at the very basic level in the brain. Which effects are most important for how these medicines work to relieve depression, PTSD, or substance abuse disorders? Which are responsible for making coaching or psychotherapy more effective in PTSD patients who normally shut down when trying to recall past trauma? We know that psychedelics facilitate more nerve connections by actually causing nerve growth. How does this correlate with the immediate and simultaneous synchronization of brain regions seen in the study from Lund University? The growth of neurons takes place over days and weeks as a result of taking psychedelic medicines. But the immediate synchronization uses current pathways that were not previously working together.
How Does Brain Synchronization Happen So Rapidly With Psychedelics?
An issue raised by the researchers is that when subjects were given psychedelics the synchronization of the brain was so fast that they do not think it is a result of the regions communicating with each other. Rather there seems to be some other process that brings distant regions into synchronization even before a nerve impulse could travel from one region to the other. They had expected that a signal would start in one region and travel to others thus causing all regions to work together. But that is not what happens with psychedelics. Rather the chemical effect of the medicine seems to work on all regions at once thus causing synchronization. How this will relate to therapeutic possibilities is not yet known.
Looking for the Mechanisms Underlying Consciousness
The dream and holy grail for these researchers is to discover the brain mechanisms that underly consciousness. As part of that quest they want to understand how mental illness occurs or does not occur in the human brain. Then they believe the path toward treatment will be clearer. By researching the neural foundations of consciousness these scientists hope to sort out just why medicines like psychedelics work and how they can be best applied to treat those in need.
What Does This Research Have to Do With Treating PTSD or Depression?
This brings us back to the two-pronged research needed to find successful treatments for mental health problems. We have written about how researchers do not know for sure how the psychedelic experience relates to successful treatment of those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse disorders, or major depression. Some are trying to synthesize psychedelic medicines without the psychedelic experience in order to help find out. It will be easier to get answers to this sort of problem if we understand better just what is going on in the brain. A fact of life in research is that world-shattering discoveries often do not come from research that is targeted at a specific problem. These sorts of discoveries come from simply trying to understand seemingly unrelated things in nature. The application of such discoveries to practical purposes comes later on.