Whose Brain Is It?
By Leena Prasad
Presented within the flow of the lives of fictional characters, this is a monthly column with a journalist’s perspective on brain research.
Phil is moving slowly through the jungle. Is it a jungle or a banana plantation? All he sees are the tall and thick banana leaves. And why is he moving so slowly. He looks down. He is riding an animal. A bright orange animal. Orange? That is strange. It lifts its long trunk and makes a sound.
An elephant! He is riding an elephant. What the fuck? Where is he? He must have said something out loud because a voice answers back.
Relax Phil. Enjoy the ride.
He recognizes the voice. It is his friend Lucy. Her voice calms him down. Everything must be okay.
He starts to do as she suggests and concentrates on enjoying the ride. It is pleasant really, so smooth. Elephants are gentle animals, he recalls from the Nature show he saw with Lucy a few weeks ago.
He feels a desire to lie down.
Is it okay to lie down, he says to Lucy.
Yes, you are in the backseat of car, she says. Albert is driving. He is taking us to Dolores Park.
Oh, he is in a car. Not on an elephant. The “banana” leaves are actually the palm trees along Dolores Street. The orange elephant is Lucy’s shawl sprawled on the seat near him. He was hallucinating.
It will be easier in Dolores Park, Lucy says. Since Albert lives nearby you can use his restroom or we can go to his place if you need to lie down or something.
Yes, it would be nice to be in nature. How long has it been now? He and Lucy had started the “journey” in the morning, at Lucy’s apartment in Bernal Heights. Dolores Park is not that far away from Lucy’s house. Why is it taking so long to get there?
He and Lucy are holding Albert’s hands. No. It’s Albert who is holding their hands. Unlike them, Albert is sober and is their guide. It’s his job to make sure that they are safe both physically and emotionally.
Phil stops to look at a purplish blue flower. He knows the street and the neighborhood fairly well and remembers seeing this flower before. But now he feels compelled to observe it more intimately. It’s so beautiful. He wants to gaze at every intricate detail.
Come on Phil. You have been staring at the flower for more than ten minutes now. We should head down to the park. It’s Albert, urging them on.
But look how beautiful it is, how perfect. Phil doesn’t want to move. Albert puts a firm hand on his shoulder and starts to guide him down the steep hill to the park.
Phil stops at the corner of Church and 20th to admire the cityscape. He has seen this view countless times yet he feels as if he is seeing it for the first time. The three of them sit down near the corner, at the crest of a hill.
Phil hears a jazz band playing not too far from where they are sitting. He looks at the band and can see the music coming towards him in beautiful improvised notes. He can see the music. How strange, he thinks.
Phil is not dreaming. He is fully conscious and will remember all the details of his experiences later when the effect of the Magic Mushrooms wears off from his system. Magic Mushroom is a popular term for a wide variety of mushrooms that contain psilocybin, a chemical that is known to produce hallucinations and other effects.
Psilocybin is not addictive. Probably because the effects last for several hours and the experience is not all thrills and games and there is potential for dangerous side effects. Products that contain psilocybin, including the “magic” mushroom family and the synthetic drug LSD, are Schedule I illegal drugs in the United States because of the possibility of dangerous side effects.
On the other hand, psilocybin has potential benefits which researchers around the world have been studying. In 2010, scientists at Johns Hopkins conducted an experiment to examine the affect of psilocybin on cancer patients. Many patients reported relief from depression and long-term improvements in their lifestyle. One patient, Dr. Martin, rated the experience as “among the most meaningful events of his life.”
“Under the influences of hallucinogens, individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states before the time of their actual physical demise, and return with a new perspective and profound acceptance of the life constant: change.” This statement was made by Dr. Charles S. Grob who conducted an identical study at UCLA on cancer patients. He noted that psilocybin helps lessen the intensity of fear, panic, and depression in terminally ill patients.
Phil is not terminally ill and does not have any mental disorders. Psilocybin or any other hallucinogens are also not recommended for people with mental illness because the impact on a disturbed mind cannot be measured or controlled and could lead to serious consequences. The formal studies are conducted in regulated lab environments within the supervision of medical professionals. Phil is being guided by his friends Albert and Lucy who are experienced users of the drug. They are ensuring that his experiences stay within a “safe” zone.
But what’s going on in Phil’s mind? A lot of what’s happening is a mystery but scientists have some clue. While people often speak of psychedelic experiences as something that expands their consciousness, the fact is that psilocybin reduces blood flow in the brain. Another common experience is that of feeling more connected with nature and other people. Ironically, during the hallucinations, critical areas of perception and cognition actually show a decreased level of connectivity. This explains, however, as to why depression can be lowered by this drug. People in the throes of depression also suffer from an overactive mind. Thus, slowing down the brain can slow down this increased activity and produce a calmer frame of mind. Extrapolating from this, it makes sense for people who are not depressed to also feel happier under the influence.
This explanation of lower activity in the brain due to reduction in blood flow and connectivity was discovered in an experiment by lead researcher Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London. His team used functional MRI brain scans to observe the brain activity of thirty volunteer participants while they were under the influence of psilocybin. The researchers measured the blood flow in half the patients and in the in the other half, they measured the connectivity among different brain regions. In both cases, the posterior cingulate and the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain were affected. There was less blood flow in these areas and the connectivity between these regions and the hippocampus was reduced. In addition, the thalamus had less blood flow also.
What does this mean?
“Changes in function in the posterior cingulate in particular are associated with changes in consciousness,” per Robin Carhart-Harris. Both the posterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortex are thought to be involved in functions related to self-awareness.
The thalamus regulates many functions of the brain so less blood flow to this region means less processing across the different regions.
The hippocampus plays a central role in consolidating short term memory to long-term storage. More studies will be needed to determine the implication of reduced connectivity between the hippocampus, the posterior cingulate and the medial prefrontal cortex.
While more experiments are required to fully document the details of what happens to a brain on psilocybin, scientists have discovered that the molecular structure of psilocybin is similar to the neurotransmitter serotonin which regulates mood. Thus psilocybin binds to the some of the same neuron receptors as serotonin and produces similar results. They are many legal prescription drugs that regulate serotonin. As per Franz Vollenweider of the Psychiatric University Hospital Zurich, it’s the long-term effects of psilocybin that are important not just the temporary altered states of participants. Even though brain connectivity is reduced in the short term, the long-term effect of the drug is to affect neural growth and connectivity, according to Vollenweider.
Other brain changes that are influenced by psilocybin are still under study and the Schedule I status of this drug complicates the research. It would be helpful to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how the brain is physiologically affected by this chemical but scientists are also studying other benefits. For example, a study by Harvard researchers Dr. R. Andrew Sewell and Dr. John H. Halpern, concluded that psilocybin is useful in reducing cluster headaches. “Our observations suggest that psilocybin and LSD may be effective in treating cluster attacks, possibly by a mechanism that is unrelated to their hallucinogenic properties. This report should not be misinterpreted as an endorsement of the use of illegal substances for self-treatment of cluster headaches.”
Phil is taking a risk in experimenting with something that is illegal and potentially dangerous. But, on the other hand, many patients in the Johns Hopkins and the UCLA studies said that their psilocybin experience was one of the most memorable and valuable events of their lives. It will probably be a while before psilocybin is used in a legal, guided, and safe environment to help people experience the levity that is often the affect of this drug. Perhaps it might become possible to safely “tune out” and feel happier and more connected to the universe. After all, there are many legal drugs like Prozac and Zoloft that have similar characteristics as psilocybin and help improve people’s lives.
Charles S. Grob, MD, et. all. “Pilot Study of Psilocybin Treatment for Anxiety in Patients With Advanced-Stage Cancer.”Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(1):71-78. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.116
Tierney, John. “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again.” New York Times 11 April 2010. < http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/12/science/12psychedelics.html?pagewanted=all>
Sewell, Dr. R. Andrew MD, Halpern, Dr. John H. MD. “Response of cluster headache to psilocybin and LSD.” Neurology. June 27, 2006 66:1920-1922
Brauser, Deborah, “Psychedelic Drugs May Reduce Symptoms of Depression, Anxiety, and OCD”, Medscape.com 25 August 2010. <http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/727438>
Please send feedback and suggestions for future columns to email@example.com. Links to past columns are available at WhoseBrainIsIt.com and Leena’s writing portfolio is available at FishRidingABike.com. Leena has a journalism degree from Stanford University.