Classic psychedelics: An integrative review of epidemiology, therapeutics, mystical experience, and brain network function

The purpose of this paper is to provide an integrative review and offer novel insights regarding human research with classic psychedelics (classic hallucinogens), which are serotonin 2A receptor (5-HT2AR) agonists such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mescaline, and psilocybin. Classic psychedelics have been administered as sacraments since ancient times. They were of prominent interest within psychiatry and neuroscience in the 1950s to 1960s, and during this time contributed to the emergence of the field of molecular neuroscience. Promising results were reported for treatment of both end-of-life psychological distress and addiction, and classic psychedelics served as tools for studying the neurobiological bases of psychological disorders. Moreover, classic psychedelics were shown to occasion mystical experiences, which are subjective experiences reported throughout different cultures and religions involving a strong sense of unity, among other characteristics. However, the recreational use of classic psychedelics and their association with the counterculture prompted an end to human research with classic psychedelics in the early 1970s. We provide the most comprehensive review of epidemiological studies of classic psychedelics to date. Notable among these are a number of studies that have suggested the possibility that nonmedical naturalistic (non-laboratory) use of classic psychedelics is associated with positive mental health and prosocial outcomes, although it is clear that some individuals are harmed by classic psychedelics in non-supervised settings. We then review recent therapeutic studies suggesting efficacy in treating psychological distress associated with life-threatening diseases, treating depression, and treating nicotine and alcohol addictions. We also describe the construct of mystical experience, and provide a comprehensive review of modern studies investigating classic psychedelic-occasioned mystical experiences and their consequences. These studies have shown classic psychedelics to fairly reliably occasion mystical experiences. Moreover, classic-psychedelic-occasioned mystical experiences are associated with improved psychological outcomes in both healthy volunteer and patient populations. Finally, we review neuroimaging studies that suggest neurobiological mechanisms of classic psychedelics. These studies have also broadened our understanding of the brain, the serotonin system, and the neurobiological basis of consciousness. Overall, these various lines of research suggest that classic psychedelics might hold strong potential as therapeutics, and as tools for experimentally investigating mystical experiences and behavioral-brain function more generally

Introduction: Evidence for entheogen use in prehistory and world religions

This introduction to the special issue reviews research that supports the hypothesis that psychedelics, particularly psilocybin, were central features in the development of religion. The greater response of the human serotonergic system to psychedelics than is the case for chimpanzees’ serotonergic receptors indicates that these substances were environmental factors that affected hominin evolution. These substances also contributed to the evolution of ritual capacities, shamanism, and the associated alterations of consciousness. The role of psilocybin mushrooms in the ancient evolution of human religions is attested to fungiform petroglyphs, rock artifacts, and mythologies from all major regions of the world. This prehistoric mycolatry persisted into the historic era in the major religious traditions of the world, which often left evidence of these practices in sculpture, art, and scriptures. This continuation of entheogenic practices in the historical world is addressed in the articles here. But even through new entheogenic combinations were introduced, complex societies generally removed entheogens from widespread consumption, restricted them in private and exclusive spiritual practices of the leaders, and often carried out repressive punishment of those who engaged in entheogenic practices.

Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance

Rationale: Although psilocybin has been used for centuries for religious purposes, little is known scientifically about its acute and persisting effects. Objectives: This double-blind study evaluated the acute and longer-term psychological effects of a high dose of psilocybin relative to a comparison compound administered under comfortable, supportive conditions. Materials and methods: The participants were hallucinogen-naïve adults reporting regular participation in religious or spiritual activities. Two or three sessions were conducted at 2-month intervals. Thirty volunteers received orally administered psilocybin (30 mg/70 kg) and methylphenidate hydrochloride (40 mg/70 kg) in counterbalanced order. To obscure the study design, six additional volunteers received methylphenidate in the first two sessions and unblinded psilocybin in a third session. The 8-h sessions were conducted individually. Volunteers were encouraged to close their eyes and direct their attention inward. Study monitors rated volunteers’ behavior during sessions. Volunteers completed questionnaires assessing drug effects and mystical experience immediately after and 2 months after sessions. Community observers rated changes in the volunteer’s attitudes and behavior. Results: Psilocybin produced a range of acute perceptual changes, subjective experiences, and labile moods including anxiety. Psilocybin also increased measures of mystical experience. At 2 months, the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance and attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior consistent with changes rated by community observers. Conclusions: When administered under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences. The ability to occasion such experiences prospectively will allow rigorous scientific investigations of their causes and consequences.

Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression

Abstract Rationale: Previous research suggests that classical psychedelic compounds can induce lasting changes in personality traits, attitudes and beliefs in both healthy subjects and patient populations. Aim: Here we sought to investigate the effects of psilocybin on nature relatedness and libertarian–authoritarian political perspective in patients with treatment-resistant depression (TRD). Methods: This open-label pilot study with a mixed-model design studied the effects of psilocybin on measures of nature relatedness and libertarian–authoritarian political perspective in patients with moderate to severe TRD (n=7) versus age-matched non-treated healthy control subjects (n=7). Psilocybin was administered in two oral dosing sessions (10 mg and 25 mg) 1 week apart. Main outcome measures were collected 1 week and 7–12 months after the second dosing session. Nature relatedness and libertarian–authoritarian political perspective were assessed using the Nature Relatedness Scale (NR-6) and Political Perspective Questionnaire (PPQ-5), respectively. Results: Nature relatedness significantly increased (t(6)=−4.242, p=0.003) and authoritarianism significantly decreased (t(6)=2.120, p=0.039) for the patients 1 week after the dosing sessions. At 7–12 months post-dosing, nature relatedness remained significantly increased (t(5)=−2.707, p=0.021) and authoritarianism remained decreased at trend level (t(5)=−1.811, p=0.065). No differences were found on either measure for the non-treated healthy control subjects. Conclusions: This pilot study suggests that psilocybin with psychological support might produce lasting changes in attitudes and beliefs. Although it would be premature to infer causality from this small study, the possibility of drug-induced changes in belief systems seems sufficiently intriguing and timely to deserve further investigation.

Increased global integration in the brain after psilocybin therapy for depression

Psilocybin therapy shows antidepressant potential, but its therapeutic actions are not well understood. We assessed the subacute impact of psilocybin on brain function in two clinical trials of depression. The first was an open-label trial of orally administered psilocybin (10 mg and 25 mg, 7 d apart) in patients with treatment-resistant depression. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was recorded at baseline and 1 d after the 25-mg dose. Beck’s depression inventory was the primary outcome measure ( MR/J00460X/1 ). The second trial was a double-blind phase II randomized controlled trial comparing psilocybin therapy with escitalopram. Patients with major depressive disorder received either 2 × 25 mg oral psilocybin, 3 weeks apart, plus 6 weeks of daily placebo (‘psilocybin arm’) or 2 × 1 mg oral psilocybin, 3 weeks apart, plus 6 weeks of daily escitalopram (10-20 mg) (‘escitalopram arm’). fMRI was recorded at baseline and 3 weeks after the second psilocybin dose ( NCT03429075 ). In both trials, the antidepressant response to psilocybin was rapid, sustained and correlated with decreases in fMRI brain network modularity, implying that psilocybin’s antidepressant action may depend on a global increase in brain network integration. Network cartography analyses indicated that 5-HT2A receptor-rich higher-order functional networks became more functionally interconnected and flexible after psilocybin treatment. The antidepressant response to escitalopram was milder and no changes in brain network organization were observed. Consistent efficacy-related brain changes, correlating with robust antidepressant effects across two studies, suggest an antidepressant mechanism for psilocybin therapy: global increases in brain network integration.

Survey study of challenging experiences after ingesting psilocybin mushrooms: Acute and enduring positive and negative consequences

Acute and enduring adverse effects of psilocybin have been reported anecdotally, but have not been well characterized. For this study, 1993 individuals (mean age 30 yrs; 78% male) completed an online survey about their single most psychologically difficult or challenging experience (worst “bad trip”) after consuming psilocybin mushrooms. Thirty-nine percent rated it among the top five most challenging experiences of his/her lifetime. Eleven percent put self or others at risk of physical harm; factors increasing the likelihood of risk included estimated dose, duration and difficulty of the experience, and absence of physical comfort and social support. Of the respondents, 2.6% behaved in a physically aggressive or violent manner and 2.7% received medical help. Of those whose experience occurred >1 year before, 7.6% sought treatment for enduring psychological symptoms. Three cases appeared associated with onset of enduring psychotic symptoms and three cases with attempted suicide. Multiple regression analysis showed degree of difficulty was positively associated, and duration was negatively associated, with enduring increases in well-being. Difficulty of experience was positively associated with dose. Despite difficulties, 84% endorsed benefiting from the experience. The incidence of risky behavior or enduring psychological distress is extremely low when psilocybin is given in laboratory studies to screened, prepared, and supported participants.

The neurobiology of psychedelic drugs: implications for the treatment of mood disorders

After a pause of nearly 40 years in research into the effects of psychedelic drugs, recent advances in our understanding of the neurobiology of psychedelics, such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin and ketamine have led to renewed interest in the clinical potential of psychedelics in the treatment of various psychiatric disorders. Recent behavioural and neuroimaging data show that psychedelics modulate neural circuits that have been implicated in mood and affective disorders, and can reduce the clinical symptoms of these disorders. These findings raise the possibility that research into psychedelics might identify novel therapeutic mechanisms and approaches that are based on glutamate-driven neuroplasticity

Intensity of Mystical Experiences Occasioned by 5-MeO-DMT and Comparison With a Prior Psilocybin Study

5-MeO-DMT is a psychoactive substance found in high concentrations in the bufotoxin of the Colorado River Toad (Bufo alvarius). Emerging evidence suggests that vaporized 5-MeO-DMT may occasion mystical experiences of comparable intensity to those occasioned by more widely studied psychedelics such as psilocybin, but no empirical study has tested this hypothesis. Data was obtained from 20 individuals (Mage = 38.9, ± 10.7; male = 55%, Caucasian = 85%) who were administered 5-MeO-DMT as part of a psychospiritual retreat program in Mexico. All participants received 50 mg of inhaled vaporized toad bufotoxin which contains 5-MeO-DMT and completed the Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ30) approximately 4–6 h after their session. Administration of 5-MeO-DMT occasioned strong mystical experiences (MEQ30 Overall Mintensity = 4.17, ± 0.64, range 0–5) and the majority (n = 15, 75%) had “a complete mystical experience” (≥60% on all MEQ30 subscales). Compared to a prior laboratory-based psilocybin study, there were no differences in the intensity of mystical effects between 5-MeO-DMT and a high dose (30 mg/70 kg) of psilocybin, but the intensity of mystical effects was significantly higher in the 5-MeO-DMT sample compared to moderate/high dose (20 mg/70 kg) of psilocybin (MEQ30 Total Score: p = 0.02, d = 0.81). Administration of vaporized 5-MeO-DMT reliably occasioned complete mystical experiences in 75% of individuals and was similar in intensity to high dose psilocybin administered in a laboratory setting. The short duration of action may be advantageous for clinical interventions and for studying mystical-type experiences.