Monday, July 5, 2010

Coming soon: your brain on shrooms

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org
For the first time, people under the influence of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, laid down in what appeared to be an fMRI brain scanner.

However, unlike an fMRI machine, the device didn’t generate any magnetic fields. In fact the device didn’t even generate an image of the brain or measure brain activity at all. The device was made out of wood.

In a study on the safety of administering psilocybin intravenously and conducting an fMRI scan, nine subjects who had previous experience with hallucinogenic drugs were injected with 2 milligrams of psilocybin and were then asked to lie down in the wooden mock-fMRI setting. The researchers determined that this dose of psilocybin should be considered tolerable and safe for conducting a brain scan.

It was important that this study be conducted before any real fMRI study on psilocybin because psychedelic drug experiences tend to be sensitive to the surrounding environment of the treated individual. Furthermore, it is difficult get good data out of fMRI. The subject has to keep their head as still as possible for the duration of the scan, since slight movements can ruin the quality of the acquired data. The subjects in the mock-fMRI scanner were able to keep very still despite reporting that they were strongly affected by the drug.

Research on psilocybin has been gaining a respectable reputation in scientific and medical communities, as outlined in a New York Times article that I previously reviewed. Guidelines for safety in human hallucinogen research already exist, and the findings from this pilot study on mock-fMRI will build upon these guidelines. With fMRI studies, the reputation of psilocybin in research will likely improve, as will our understanding of how the drug exerts its baffling effects. There are currently two ongoing studies investigating whether psilocybin can ease psychological suffering associated with cancer. If there is an effect on mental well-being, studies of the brain could help us uncover the mechanism. And of course, news agencies will likely jump on the opportunity to describe the mystical experiences associated with psilocybin use as a simple product of neural patterns.

As in all aspects of neuroscience, however, fMRI will not tell us the whole story. The cellular and molecular level of psilocybin’s effects should be considered in conjunction with information obtained from macro-level brain activity studies.

It is also important to realize that just because psilocybin is being taken seriously in research, this does not justify irresponsible use of the drug. Whenever a research study identifies a positive effect of cannabis or another illicit substance, proponents of using that drug often take the findings out of proportion and context. Learning how psilocybin works may help us understand how to best use it, but harmful effects as well as the limitations of research studies should always be considered.

Expect to hear a lot more about psilocybin brain scans in the near future.

[Edit: see Mind Hacks for more discussion of the study]

Reference:

Carhart-Harris RL, Williams TM, Sessa B, Tyacke RJ, Rich AS, Feilding A, & Nutt DJ (2010). The administration of psilocybin to healthy, hallucinogen-experienced volunteers in a mock-functional magnetic resonance imaging environment: a preliminary investigation of tolerability. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England) PMID: 20395317

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