A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Brain Research found that the psychedelics made popular in the ’70s may have medical benefits.
Researchers working with psilocybin, the active chemical in “magic mushrooms,” found the chemical may help individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and short-term memory loss.
The research began in 2008 as Briony Catlow’s dissertation study.
“Basically, we wanted to look at how psilocybin alters a very, very strong learning paradigm called fear conditioning,” Catlow said.
The study, co-authored by Catlow and Dr. Juan Ramos-Sanchez, a neurology professor, originally aimed to find the function of neurogenesis throughout the life cycle. Neurogenesis is the brain’s process of creating new neurons in the part of the brain responsible for memory.
In order to test psilocybin’s effect on neurogenesis, researchers subjected mice to a trace conditioning exercise. Trace conditioning involves leaving time in between the conditioning behavior to allow the mice to make the condition a memory. This causes the rats to access their neurological pathways to recall specific stimuli when a sound is made.
“The mice were put in boxes in which the floor was electrically charged,” Catlow said. “When a specific sound went off, the mice would receive a shock. Eventually, they would start associating this sound with the electric shock.”
The researchers hypothesized that mice, who were given psilocybin in order to inhibit neurogenesis, would learn the conditioning quicker, but the study showed that all the mice learned at the same rate.
“The fact that it didn’t affect their acquisition amazed me,” Sanchez-Ramos said. “Low dose, high dose — it didn’t really seem to matter.”
They then paired the sound with no electric shock.
The sound itself was enough for the mice to freeze in shock. What amazed researchers was the rate at which the mice given psilocybin were able to realize that the sound itself did not necessarily indicate a painful shock.
“By the third pairing they extinguished the response,” Sanchez-Ramos said. “In other words, they no longer feared the sound. They learned to disassociate the fear-response behavior from the neutral stimulus much faster. That was the big breakthrough.”
The real world implication of the disassociation, Sanchez-Ramos said, is that this may possibly translate into a treatment for PTSD patients who associate certain stimuli with painful memories.
“In PTSD, a person who’s been around bombs in Afghanistan or Iraq and who have lost friends or limbs, that creates a pretty strong emotional response,” Sanchez-Ramos said. “Then you come home and try to re-integrate into society. When you’re driving in you’re car and hear a back-fire you immediately have this tremendous, irrational fear set in because of the link of that sound with a terrible devastation that occurs after that sound. If we could dissociate those cues with an emotional response then that may be helpful in PTSD therapies.”
He warned however, that this doesn’t mean anyone suffering from PTSD should go out and eat magic mushrooms.
“All of these things cannot and should not be done without associated psychotherapy,” Sanchez-Ramos said. “For someone who is experiencing severe PTSD, psilocybin may be an adjunct to their psychotherapy.”
Additional, unpublished research also showed that when the mice were given a low dose of psilocybin once a week, neurogenesis increased significantly more than researchers believed possible. Sanchez-Ramos said these results meant that psilocybin could possibly be used to treat memory issues associated with neurological degeneration.
“The baby-boomer generation is terrified of losing their memory,” Sanchez-Ramos said. “So there is a tremendous interest in finding medications or treatments that enhance neurogenesis and allow you to maintain your cognitive integrity to a ripe old age.”
Sanchez-Ramos said this kind of research highlights the need for the formulation of safer and more effective drugs that enhance memory and cognitive ability. 12