By Fei Sato
A small study involving 19 patients with treatment resistant depression was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.
The study was led by the Psychedelic Research Group, from Imperial College London.
In the current study, patients were given a single dose of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient found in “magic mushrooms”. The researchers performed fMRI brain scans on these patients before the dose, one day after and five weeks later.
After one week, 63% of patients were no longer depressed. After 5 weeks, 47% of patients were no longer depressed. Within the brain, psilocybin decreased activity in the amygdala – a part of the brain related to strong emotions, such as fear and anxiety. The decreased amygdala activity correlated with reductions in depressive symptoms. There was an increase in connectivity within the default mode network (DMN) – the DMN is a network of three regions which are primarily active when a person is not involved in a task, but rather is at rest and thinking about their life. For this reason the DMN is commonly associated with self-awareness or self-cognition. This increase in DMN activity was correlated with the antidepressant effects of psilocybin.
Figure 1. fMRI images showing the cerebral blood flow (CBF) before and after psilocybin treatment. A decrease in CBF is noted in the amygdala after psilocybin treatment. The decrease in amygdala CBF correlates with levels of depression.
These results are interesting as they add another piece to the puzzle on how psychedelics may alleviate depressive symptoms. It was previously shown that psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD and ayahuasca actually disrupt or reduce connectivity of the DMN during ‘the trip’. Now we know that there is a rebound type effect that leads to a subsequent increase in DMN connectivity weeks later.
The researchers have proposed that psilocybin can “reset” the brain. By disrupting the DMN initially, participants are able to decrease the perceptual filters associated with their sense of self. In the weeks afterwards, patients can then start to “integrate” all the new information they have received during the trip, which is hypothesised to be related to the increase in DMN connectivity and thoughts of the self. Such ideas have been outlined in a paper by Robin Carhart-Harris and colleagues.
According to BBC news, Dr Carhart-Harris said the depressed brain was being “clammed up” and the psychedelic experience “reset” it. “Patients were very ready to use this analogy. Without any priming they would say, ‘I’ve been reset, reborn, rebooted’, and one patient said his brain had been defragged and cleaned up”, he said.
Prof Mitul Mehta, from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, told BBC: “What is impressive about these preliminary findings is that brain changes occurred in the networks we know are involved in depression, after just a single dose of psilocybin.
“This provides a clear rationale to now look at the longer-term mechanisms in controlled studies.” The team at Imperial College told patients not to self medicate. A larger scale study with a control group is now needed to confirm these results.
Dr Jack Allocca
The International Transpersonal Conference 2017 (ITC2017) started with a vague yet powerful statement,”Beyond materialism – towards wholeness“. Over four days it went to great lengths to make it less vague and yet more powerful. Over 100 speakers gathered from all corners of the world to discuss all topics transpersonal. But what does transpersonal really mean? As offered by the Merriam-Webster dictionary transpersonal is defined as “denoting or relating to states or areas of consciousness beyond the limits of personal identity”. Dr Stanislav Grof, Czech Psychiatrist and cult figure in the field provided a more transparent synonym, describing transpersonal psychology as “spiritual psychology”. This is where the traditional scientific method strips its usual rigorous suit to skinny dip in the metaphysical, the mystical, and often the esoteric.
Figure 1. Transpersonal art through dance, the inaugural performance of ITC2017
ITC2017 chose Prague for this event to mark the 50th anniversary of the foundation of Transpersonal Psychology. This also marks the 25th anniversary of the very first International Transpersonal Conference, which was also located in this very city. However, Prague was previously a part of a different nation, the now-dissolved, Czechoslovakia. The event gathered over 100 academics, scientists, researchers, therapists, artists, sympathizers and those interested in the transpersonal movement and new scientific paradigms.
ITC2017 is the first time the APS attended a conference where psychedelics had not been the cornerstone of the debate. However, reaching outside the psychedelic comfort zone is important, as the pursuit of altered states both for therapy and enlightenment has been approached throughout the ages in many other ways other than what we usually define psychedelia.
Accordingly, ITC2017 delivered an impressive showcase of most approaches aimed at hacking our relationship with reality and consciousness. Deep ecology, psychedelics, quantum physics, technology, shamanism, religion, spirituality and art were discussed over 7 different thematic tracks: i) transpersonal psychology, psychotherapy and clinical studies; ii) inner ecology, collective psyche and social transformation; iii) psychedelics – science, spirituality and therapeutic potential; iv) new horizons in science and sosmology; v) shamanism and Its potential for modern man; vi) mystical spirituality as a link between world religions; vii) holotropic art as an expression of inner process.
Figure 2. Dr Jack Allocca of the APS at ITC2017, Prague, Czechia.
“If you think consciousness comes from the brain, think again” Grof declared to inaugurate the conference “the brain is a mere transmission channel, just as the television is to the signals it delivers to us”. What this signal is, and where it may come from was the debate of most of the talks that constellated ITC2017. The practice that Grof himself brought to the West, Holotropic Breathwork, took the lion’s share of representation amongst the more practical pursuits to transcend towards such answers. Several talks, seminars and workshop helped the audience to legally fragment their consciousness through the power of breathing. Indeed, discussing legality and breathwork is crucial, as Holotropic Breathwork may be the only beneficial development from the War on Drugs, which forced Grof to shift his psychiatric practice away from LSD, towards the only manifestation of cognitive liberty that could not be outlawed.
Psychedelic mysticism and science, while being more peripheral in the debate, received appropriate representation. Rick Doblin was present to provide updates with his crusade to bring MDMA back in the legal therapeutical domain, at least with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dr Octavio Rettig, who is currently the most prominent advocate of psychedelic psychotherapy through the use of the venom of the Bufo Alvarius toad, came to present a new documentary on this misterious animal and its unique venom. This production, which can be reviewed at www.bufoalvarius.com, also featured Grof himself, who presented his take on the phenomenology of 5-meo-DMT and his personal journey with it. Datura, and cholinergic delirants scopolamine and atropine also got unusually comprehensive coverage. Robert “Rio” Hahn, explorer, film-maker and Director of Ecotechnics Maritime described his personal journey with this esoteric, mysterious and highly dangerous entheogen. The highlight of his talk described the exposure of Rio with Suami Duramjoti, a Hindu Suami living in Nepal, who took daily Datura three times a day since the age of six, which translates to a daily consumption lethal to the vast majority of humans. Suami mixes Datura paste with beetlenut, a nicotinergic entheogen popular in the region. Interestingly, while he believes this regimen connects him to the divine, withdrawal also makes him unable to remember his holy Sanscrit texts and thus, Suami has developed a dependence on Datura and beetlenut. The video of this talk will be up on youtube and the APS website very soon.
Figure 3. Rober “Rio” Hahn, on the therapeutic and spiritual power of Datura
With all its impact and careful preparation, ITC2017 also drew a conspicuous amount of criticism. First and foremost, the last ITC event was staged in 2010, suggesting that this field is ridden with problems of speed and consistency around its research. Moreover, while the conference aimed to be “transpersonal”, and reaching “beyond materialism”, the price tag of $AUD 600 for a standard ticket placed it well within the boundaries of materialism, and definitely outside those of transpersonal. In terms of content, many talks arguably had a sense of over-whimsical, and a certain degree of overuse of the word “quantum”, in all possible contexts, and with questionable degrees of legitimacy. Moreover, tangible conflict could be perceived in the air. Patrick Everitt decided last-minute to withdraw his schedule talk, expressing the unwillingness to be associated with an event that in his words “lacks rigor and legitimacy”. Interestingly, his talk discussed the possible influence of peyote cactus on the life and existential development of Aleister Crowley, a topic that did seem to fit quite well with the event. On the other hand, Luc Sala, who was not admitted to speak at Breaking Convention 2017 in London due to friction with the organisers, was given instead ample space at ITC2017 to deliver his theories of psychedelic therapy through the chackras. Sala believes that psychedelics are all different, and while some are appropriate for specific conditions, others would be wildly contraindicated. He associates the effects of each psychedelic substance with the ying/yang balance of each chackra, and believes each substance interferes very selectively with specific energetic centres. Many of his theories, from the more intuitive to the more controversial, are presented through his books, which he often distributes free of charge. At ITC2017 he took the opportunity to promote his latest manuscript, “IDENTITY, The essence of manifestation”.
Figure 4. Luc Sala and Joshua Bloom (of newtonian shamanics), discussing the future of psychedelics
In summary, ITC2017 was a mixed event, the prohibitive price tag, the ephimeral nature of many of the talks delivered, and the rise of quantum porn definitely raised brows. However, the impressive range of topic covered, the tangible representations of several heavy lifters in their respective fields, and lastly the beautiful city of Prague made ITC2017 a powerful and worthwhile event at last. It remains to be seen if the organisers will learn from criticism, and will stage an ever improved version in the future, which hopefully will be sooner than in another 7 years time.