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Study suggests psilocybin can positively change emotions and brain function long-term

Published on October 26, 2020 · Last updated October 27, 2020
psilocybin, mushrooms, psychedelics

Over time, it’s easy to become entrenched in how we view and move through the world. Firing up the same well-worn neural pathways becomes effortless, leading most of us to live more confined existences than we’d like to admit. For some, these ingrained habits may be a preference for a certain kind of takeout or other triviality, but for others, it can result in mood disorders or addiction.

So how hard is it to change your mind? A 2020 study published in Scientific Reports suggests a single dose of psilocybin may change your outlook on life—for good. Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic drug found in certain mushrooms. Like cannabis, psychedelics are becoming accepted and celebrated as potent plant medicine. Psilocybin may help forge new neural networks, helping individuals shake off harmful behaviors and thinking patterns.

What are psychedelics?

Long-term effects of psilocybin

While there is past research on the short-term effects of psilocybin, less is known about its enduring effects. The 2020 Scientific Reports study set out to explore the impacts of a single high dose of psilocybin up to one month after administration.

Twelve healthy volunteers took a single high dose of psilocybin—25mg per ~150 lbs (70 kg) of body weight—and completed a battery of standardized measures and evaluations. These gauged mood, anxiety, depression, stress, and negative and positive affect one day before, one week after, and one month after the psilocybin dose. Affect refers to an individual’s emotions, feelings or mood.

Participants’ responses were compared to explore whether the dose had enduring effects on emotional state, personality traits, and affect. The volunteers also underwent fMRI measurements to check how psilocybin affected their responses to emotional stimuli, and whether the dose had a long-lasting impact on brain connectivity. 

Effective brain connectivity delivers a bundle of benefits: think improved cognitive function, memory, imagination, language skills, and stronger physical endurance. Connectivity patterns in the brain are formed by synapses that structurally link different parts of the brain. The level of connectivity in the brain critically affects the way neural networks process information.

5 medical conditions psychedelics may be able to help treat

Reduced negative vibes, increased positive vibes

One significant outcome of the research was psilocybin’s influence on affect—an individual’s emotions, feelings or mood: Psilocybin appeared to reduce negative affect and increase positive affect. Scales and tests measuring stress, negative feelings, anxiety, tension, depression, and mood disturbances were significantly lower one week after the psilocybin dose. However, these ratings returned to baseline after the one-month mark.

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Negative affect is one of the hallmarks of mood disorders and has also been linked to addiction. A 2017 survey showed that psychedelics may disrupt the affective elements of craving and withdrawal.

According to the authors of the 2017 survey, psilocybin might kickstart a dynamic process of neuroplasticity that is sustained for at least several weeks. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s incredible capacity to adapt to changing needs and environmental stimuli. 

Throughout our lives, neural connections in the brain reorganize, allowing us to learn from and adjust to diverse experiences. During this period, individuals may become more positively inclined, potentially inhibiting mood disorders and addictive behaviors. 

This inclination toward positive affect may also be driven by higher-level changes in emotional control and perception. The long-term upshot of reduced negative affect is lasting positive changes in mood, attitude, and well-being, and feelings of being connected to life and the ability to draw meaning from events.

New company to put psilocybin on dissolvable sublingual strips to help treat depression

Boosted brain connectivity

The 2020 study also reported another significant finding: At the one-month mark, there was an ongoing increase in functional connectivity across diverse brain networks. Connectivity across diverse sections of the brain is vital to maintaining healthy brain function. Disruptive networks or dysconnectivity can be a sign of mental illness or conditions such as schizophrenia.

In addition to this study, psilocybin’s ability to build connections across the brain’s networks has been documented in other research

Other key findings

The Scientific Reports study authors also noted increased responses in reward-learning, attentiveness, and decision-making circuits of the brain following the dose. Taking psilocybin is commonly linked to changes in personality, promoting open-minded thinking and extroversion. In this research, psilocybin led to an increase in conscientiousness among participants.

Possibly the most critical element of the findings was that some effects endured long after the residue of psilocybin left the body. The authors also emphasized that any temporary changes in receptors that bind to psilocybin were resolved after one week. In other words, long-lasting changes occurred because psilocybin appeared to kickstart a process that increased neural connectivity in the brain. These changes subsequently transform how participants see and interact with the world around them.

Seasoned psychonauts weigh in

Nick Levich is a psychedelic integration specialist and co-founder of Psychedelic Passage. For Levich, the significance of this study is its emphasis on the utility of increased brain connectivity. 

“Increased connectivity allows us to rewire our brain, literally,” said Levich. “When your brain makes new connections while under the influence of psychedelics, it can help to undo the social conditioning or ‘programming’ that has taken place over years or decades, in just a single experience. Think of it as an interruption to your regularly scheduled programming.”

New neural connections formed as a result of this increased connectivity overcome feelings of being stuck, explained Levich. Psilocybin can help replace these ingrained habits with new, ideally more desirable, ways of being. He underlined that how this increased connectivity manifests all comes down to an individual’s specific intention. 

“The brain has a relatively high level of plasticity, meaning that it can adapt and change pretty easily based on new experiences—and ingesting psilocybin is a new experience that catalyzes change,” he explained. “Psilocybin presents us with an opportunity to fire and wire new neural pathways. This means a single dose of psilocybin has the potential to, quite literally, change your day-to-day life.”  

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So, what changes can be expected? For Psychedelic Passage’s co-founder Jimmy Nguyen, a single experience with psilocybin redirected his life trajectory and struggles with depression. Nguyen observed three central changes that endured beyond that single dose, many of which resonate with the Scientific Reports study findings.

“Firstly, psilocybin allowed me the potential of being happy for no reason. The experience rendered me curious, jovial, and excited at new thoughts or situations that arose,” he said. “Even more serious introspection into the stresses in my life was viewed through a light-hearted lens, which allowed me to tackle troubling topics. Knowing that feeling contentment was possible has anchored my life experiences in a more meaningful way.” 

Nguyen also emphasizes a sense of connectivity to the wider environment and those around him after taking psilocybin. 

“The experience reminded me that I was one individual interconnected to 7 billion people experiencing a mosaic of life events, and that I had unlimited support available to me,” he explained. He believes this outlook has empowered him to discuss mental health and emotions more openly long after the effects wore off, positively contributing to his well-being. 

Finally, Nguyen reflected that one of the most significant changes came in the afterglow of the psilocybin experience. 

“I would wake up in the mornings feeling mentally clear. My emotions were both more balanced and more vivid than before,” he stated. “It was as though I’d been practicing deep meditation for years and achieved a level of persisting calm. This mental state allowed me to continue my deep introspection, and connect dots about my life experiences, reframing them in more positive and meaningful ways.”

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Emma Stone
Emma Stone
Emma Stone is a journalist based in New Zealand specializing in cannabis, health, and well-being. She has a Ph.D. in sociology and has worked as a researcher and lecturer, but loves being a writer most of all. She would happily spend her days writing, reading, wandering outdoors, eating and swimming.
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