Who would have thought giving a psychedelic medicine to an octopus would help us understand the human brain? Johns Hopkins University is one of centers doing research into psychedelic medicines for treating conditions like PTSD, depression, and substance abuse disorders. A necessary part of this effort is investigating the basic science underlying psychedelics. A very basic part of all this had to do with investigating psychedelics and critical learning periods. One study had to do with giving MDMA to octopi and seeing that they became much more sociable.
Why Give an Octopus MDMA?
When you give an octopus MDMA you are giving it to a creature whose “brain” is about as different from ours as it could be. Researchers did this to try to understand how far back in evolution serotonin became an important neural transmitter substance. What interested researchers in LSD and other psychedelics in the first place was the chemical similarities between these substances and a critical neurotransmitter, serotonin. Octopi do not like each other. If you put two of them in the same tank one will usually kill the other one. When researchers gave octopi MDMA they could put several in the same tank and they were not upset. The researchers likened this to how critical learning periods in children make learning more efficient and set the stage for emotional reactions, likes and dislikes that last a lifetime. Their conclusion was that this property of the brain is very, very old.
Why and How Do Psychedelics Work?
A patient with severe PTSD suffers for years after a traumatic event such as during military combat. They are unable to process their thoughts and emotions because their brain is locked into a feedback loop. They think about old trauma and the mere thought causes fear, anxiety, confusion, and shuts them down. Drugs that help make the brain more receptive to psychotherapy include selective serotonin uptake inhibitors that increase brain serotonin levels and psychedelics that mimic the actions of serotonin. What researchers like those at Johns Hopkins believe is that they are reopening old learning pathways, critical learning periods.
Once or Twice and Done With Psychedelic Therapy
An amazing thing about therapy with psychedelic medicines is that you only need to give these drugs once or twice to facilitate long term and even lifelong cures. Standard antidepressants that modify serotonin levels also work to facilitate psychotherapy. However one needs to keep giving these medicines day after day, week after week, and month after month. These medicines help, they are not making any basic changes to the brain. However it appears drugs like psychedelics are doing just that. Not only are negative feedback loops taken down but the brain actually grows new connections after psychedelics. This is thought to be part of the reason for the long term positive results of these medicines.
Getting Out of a Rut With Psychedelics
Many people have taken psychedelics because they believe this makes them more creative. How the Johns Hopkins researchers describe this is that the brain is free to wander a bit outside of its usual self-imposed constraints. In regard to creative thinking, psychedelics just let somebody think outside the box and come up with new ideas and new connections. For someone trapped in a PTSD feedback loop it lets them get outside and experience an unconstrained view of their issues. This, along with psychotherapy, lets them put the past in the past and get on with their daily lives free of old fears and inhibitions.
Having the Brain of a Six Year Old for a Day With Psychedelics
Most of us would not especially like to go back to being a kid. However having the brain and the malleability of a six year old could make it a lot easier to sort out issues like depression and PTSD with professional coaching or therapy. We have a lot more knowledge as adults. Because most of the world does not change very much it generally works to establish thinking and behavior patterns. Unfortunately we very commonly develop negative or pathological thought patterns that are self-defeating. These patterns are so ingrained that we get trapped in them. Here is where being able to turn on and off critical learning periods can be especially useful.