Last updated on 6th June 2019
How do psychedelics work? This is a complex topic
Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2019). "How do psychedelics work?" Current Opinion in Psychiatry 32(1): 16-21. Purpose of review Psychedelics are reawakening interest from psychiatry, cognitive neuroscience and the general public with impressive outcomes in small-scale clinical trials, intriguing human brain imaging work and high-impact journalism. Recent findings This brief opinion piece offers a perspective on how psychedelics work in the brain that may help contextualize these developments. It attempts to link various scales of action, from the molecular (serotonin 2A receptor agonism) through to the anatomical and functional (heightened plasticity) and up to the dynamic (increased brain entropy), systems level (network disintegration and desegregation) and experiential. Summary It is proposed that psychedelics initiate a cascade of neurobiological changes that manifest at multiple scales and ultimately culminate in the relaxation of high-level beliefs. The purpose of psychedelic therapy is to harness the opportunity afforded by this belief-relaxation to achieve a healthy revision of pathological beliefs.
Swanson, L. R. (2018). "Unifying theories of psychedelic drug effects" Frontiers in Pharmacology 9(172). (Available in free full text) How do psychedelic drugs produce their characteristic range of acute effects in perception, emotion, cognition, and sense of self? How do these effects relate to the clinical efficacy of psychedelic-assisted therapies? Efforts to understand psychedelic phenomena date back more than a century in Western science. In this article I review scientific theories of psychedelic drug effects and highlight key theoretical features which have endured over the last 125 years of psychedelic science. First, I describe the subjective phenomenology of acute psychedelic effects using the best available empirical data. Next, I review late 19th-century and early 20th-century theories—model psychoses theory, filtration theory, and psychoanalytic theory—and highlight their shared theoretical features. I then briefly review recent neuropharmacological and neurophysiological findings. Finally, I describe some recent theories of psychedelic drug effects that leverage 21st-century cognitive neuroscience frameworks—entropic brain theory, integrated information theory, and predictive processing—highlighting their shared theoretical features and pointing out how they link back to earlier theories. From this analysis a key theoretical concept is identified which cuts across many theories past and present: psychedelic drugs perturb specific brain processes which normally sustain constraints on perceptual, affective, cognitive, and self-related neural systems. While a truly unifying theory has yet to emerge, I suggest that the enduring theoretical features and formalized frameworks highlighted in this article could form a groundwork for future unifying theories of psychedelic drug effects.
(imagery showing enhanced cross-communication in the brain from talk by Robin Carhart-Harris, TEDxWarwick 2016)
Olson, D. E. (2018). "Psychoplastogens: A promising class of plasticity-promoting neurotherapeutics" Journal of Experimental Neuroscience 12: 1179069518800508. Neural plasticity—the ability to change and adapt in response to stimuli—is an essential aspect of healthy brain function and, in principle, can be harnessed to promote recovery from a wide variety of brain disorders. Many neuropsychiatric diseases including mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders arise from an inability to weaken and/or strengthen pathologic and beneficial circuits, respectively, ultimately leading to maladaptive behavioral responses. Thus, compounds capable of facilitating the structural and functional reorganization of neural circuits to produce positive behavioral effects have broad therapeutic potential. Several known drugs and experimental therapeutics have been shown to promote plasticity, but most rely on indirect mechanisms and are slow-acting. Here, I describe psychoplastogens—a relatively new class of fast-acting therapeutics, capable of rapidly promoting structural and functional neural plasticity. Psychoplastogenic compounds include psychedelics, ketamine, and several other recently discovered fast-acting antidepressants. Their use in psychiatry represents a paradigm shift in our approach to treating brain disorders as we focus less on rectifying “chemical imbalances” and place more emphasis on achieving selective modulation of neural circuits.
Hendricks, P. S. (2018). "Awe: a putative mechanism underlying the effects of classic psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy" International Review of Psychiatry 30(4): 331-342. Abstract A psychological model of classic psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy informed by contemporary scientific data is presented in this paper. It is suggested that classic psychedelic-occasioned mystical experience is characterized by profound awe, a discrete emotion experienced in the presence of a vast stimulus requiring accommodation of mental structures. Awe, in turn, promotes the small self, a construct that, in the extreme, is analogous to those of unitive experience and ego dissolution. The small self is conceptualized as key to understanding the downstream effects of mystical experience occasioned in the context of classic psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. With this novel theoretical framework in mind, a number of clinical implications and recommendations are provided so as to advance this incipient field of study.
Hartogsohn, I. (2018). "The meaning-enhancing properties of psychedelics and their mediator role in psychedelic therapy, spirituality, and creativity" Frontiers in Neuroscience 12(129). (Available in free full text) Past research has demonstrated to the ability of psychedelics to enhance suggestibility, and pointed to their ability to amplify perception of meaning. This paper examines the existing evidence for the meaning-enhancing properties of psychedelics, and argues that the tendency of these agents to enhance the perception of significance offers valuable clues to explaining their reported ability to stimulate a variety of therapeutic processes, enhance creativity, and instigate mystical-type experiences. Building upon previous research, which suggested the potential role of psychedelic meaning-enhancement in enhancing placebo response, the paper explores the mechanisms by which the meaning-amplifying properties of psychedelics might also play a role in enhancing creativity, as well as in effecting mystical-type experiences. The wider social and public-health implications of this hypothesis are discussed, and suggestions are made as to the various ways in which scientific understanding of the meaning-enhancing properties of psychedelics might be advanced and utilized.
Haijen, E. C. H. M., et al. (2018). "Predicting responses to psychedelics: A prospective study" Frontiers in Pharmacology 9(897). (Available in free full text) Responses to psychedelics are notoriously difficult to predict, yet significant work is currently underway to assess their therapeutic potential and the level of interest in psychedelics among the general public appears to be increasing. We aimed to collect prospective data in order to improve our ability to predict acute- and longer-term responses to psychedelics. Individuals who planned to take a psychedelic through their own initiative participated in an online survey (www.psychedelicsurvey.com). Traits and variables relating to set, setting and the acute psychedelic experience were measured at five different time points before and after the experience. Principle component and regression methods were used to analyse the data. Sample sizes for the five time points included N= 654, N= 535, N= 379, N= 315, and N= 212 respectively. Psychological well-being was increased two weeks after a psychedelic experience and remained at this level after four weeks. This increase was larger for individuals who scored higher for a ‘mystical-type experience’, and smaller for those who scored higher for ‘challenging experience’. Having ‘clear intentions’ for the experience was conducive to mystical-type experiences. Having a positive ‘set’, as well as having the experience with intentions related to ‘recreation’, were both found to decrease the likelihood of having a challenging experience. The trait ‘absorption’ and higher drug doses promoted both mystical-type and challenging experiences. When comparing different types of variables, traits variables seemed to explain most variance in the change in well-being after a psychedelic experience. These results confirm the importance of extra-pharmacological factors in determining responses to a psychedelic. We view this study as an early step towards the development of empirical guidelines that can evolve and improve iteratively with the ultimate purpose of guiding crucial clinical decisions about whether, when, where and how to dose with a psychedelic, thus helping to reduce risks while maximising potential benefits in an evidence-based manner.
Carhart-Harris, R. L. and D. J. Nutt (2017). "Serotonin and brain function: a tale of two receptors" J Psychopharmacol 31(9): 1091-1120. Previous attempts to identify a unified theory of brain serotonin function have largely failed to achieve consensus. In this present synthesis, we integrate previous perspectives with new and older data to create a novel bipartite model centred on the view that serotonin neurotransmission enhances two distinct adaptive responses to adversity, mediated in large part by its two most prevalent and researched brain receptors: the 5-HT1A and 5-HT2A receptors. We propose that passive coping (i.e. tolerating a source of stress) is mediated by postsynaptic 5-HT1AR signalling and characterised by stress moderation. Conversely, we argue that active coping (i.e. actively addressing a source of stress) is mediated by 5-HT2AR signalling and characterised by enhanced plasticity (defined as capacity for change). We propose that 5-HT1AR-mediated stress moderation may be the brain's default response to adversity but that an improved ability to change one's situation and/or relationship to it via 5-HT2AR-mediated plasticity may also be important - and increasingly so as the level of adversity reaches a critical point. We propose that the 5-HT1AR pathway is enhanced by conventional 5-HT reuptake blocking antidepressants such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), whereas the 5-HT2AR pathway is enhanced by 5-HT2AR-agonist psychedelics. This bipartite model purports to explain how different drugs (SSRIs and psychedelics) that modulate the serotonergic system in different ways, can achieve complementary adaptive and potentially therapeutic outcomes.
Hartogsohn, I. (2016). "Set and setting, psychedelics and the placebo response: An extra-pharmacological perspective on psychopharmacology" Journal of Psychopharmacology 30(12): 1259-1267. Placebo response theory and set and setting theory are two fields which examine how non-biological factors shape the response to therapy. Both consider factors such as expectancy, preparation and beliefs to be crucial for understanding the extra-pharmacological processes which shape the response to drugs. Yet there are also fundamental differences between the two theories. Set and setting concerns itself with response to psychoactive drugs only; placebo theory relates to all therapeutic interventions. Placebo theory is aimed at medical professionals; set and setting theory is aimed at professionals and drug users alike. Placebo theory is primarily descriptive, describing how placebo acts; set and setting theory is primarily prescriptive, educating therapists and users on how to control and optimize the effects of drugs. This paper examines how placebo theory and set and setting theory can complement and benefit each other, broadening our understanding of how non-biological factors shape response to drugs and other treatment interventions.
Carhart-Harris, R. L., et al. (2014). "The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs" Front Hum Neurosci 8: 20. Entropy is a dimensionless quantity that is used for measuring uncertainty about the state of a system but it can also imply physical qualities, where high entropy is synonymous with high disorder. Entropy is applied here in the context of states of consciousness and their associated neurodynamics, with a particular focus on the psychedelic state. The psychedelic state is considered an exemplar of a primitive or primary state of consciousness that preceded the development of modern, adult, human, normal waking consciousness. Based on neuroimaging data with psilocybin, a classic psychedelic drug, it is argued that the defining feature of "primary states" is elevated entropy in certain aspects of brain function, such as the repertoire of functional connectivity motifs that form and fragment across time. Indeed, since there is a greater repertoire of connectivity motifs in the psychedelic state than in normal waking consciousness, this implies that primary states may exhibit "criticality," i.e., the property of being poised at a "critical" point in a transition zone between order and disorder where certain phenomena such as power-law scaling appear. Moreover, if primary states are critical, then this suggests that entropy is suppressed in normal waking consciousness, meaning that the brain operates just below criticality. It is argued that this entropy suppression furnishes normal waking consciousness with a constrained quality and associated metacognitive functions, including reality-testing and self-awareness. It is also proposed that entry into primary states depends on a collapse of the normally highly organized activity within the default-mode network (DMN) and a decoupling between the DMN and the medial temporal lobes (which are normally significantly coupled). These hypotheses can be tested by examining brain activity and associated cognition in other candidate primary states such as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and early psychosis and comparing these with non-primary states such as normal waking consciousness and the anaesthetized state.
More to follow ...