A groundbreaking study, the first of its kind performed on humans, has taken place at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. This study sheds light on how psilocybin affects neurological mechanisms, inducing the sensation of ego dissolution or ‘ego death’. These findings to explain why psychedelics are making waves in the treatment of mood disorders such as depression. Additionally, the study identified which parts of the brain are engaged during a ‘good trip’ or a ‘bad trip’. This is something that has never been done before.
The study was placebo controlled, and featured 60 healthy volunteers’. After being administered either psilocybin or a placebo, the volunteers brains were monitored using an MRI machine. The researchers were monitoring the glutamate responses to psilocybin. Glutamate is the most common neurotransmitter in our brain and central nervous system. It is involved in almost every excitatory brain function, and is the main mediator of sensory information, emotions, cognition, and motor coordination. There has long been a suggested link between it (glutamate) and self-experience disorders such as anxiety or schizophrenia.
When studying activity in the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus (two brain regions primarily associated with ego) after the administration of psilocybin, researchers found a clear increase in glutamate activity. It has previously been hypothesised that glutamate is activated when tripping on psychedelic drugs. However, this was the first time that proof had been found in a human study. This shows there is a neurological basis for the therapeutic effects of psilocybin that are currently creating headlines.
The second finding however, was a surprise to the researchers. They found, through MRI scans, that while glutamate levels in the prefrontal cortex increased when psilocybin was administered, the levels in the hippocampus decreased. Through the volunteers’ self-reported sense of ego, researchers discovered a link between the region of the brain activated by glutamate, and whether the trip was described as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in terms of ego dissolution.
A positive ego dissolution (or, ‘good trip’ to you and me) is categorised as involving euphoria and good mood, a feeling of one-ness with the world. This ‘good trip’ was experienced primarily when there were lower levels of glutamate in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is linked to our self esteem levels. The reduction of activity here could explain the effectiveness of psilocybin in mood disorder studies. The temporary depersonalisation caused by the trip, gives the subject the chance to reset and distance from previous negative habits and emotional states.
A negative ego dissolution (i.e. the ‘bad trip’) was experienced when there were higher levels of glutamate in the prefrontal cortex . This was described as a loss of decision making skills, autonomy, intention and spontaneous movement. This makes sense as the prefrontal cortex is known for decision making, mediating social behaviour, personality expression and formulating complex behaviour.
However, MRI scan also showed that the volunteers who had psilocybin experienced both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ experiences during their trip. This was due to the glutamate levels in the brain regions changing throughout. This reflects the psychedelic scholars’ experience that a trip featuring ego dissolution or ‘death’ can be simultaneously both wonderful and scary. It is always however, quite profound. Excitingly, these findings were significant enough for the researchers to be able to predict whether the volunteers had experienced a predominantly good or bad trip, based on the MRI brain scans alone.
Learning More, One Psychedelic Study At A Time…
Although it is still not known quite why these findings occur, again we are finding that the study of psychedelics is edging us closer and closer to understanding the origins and functioning of the ego. From there we can learn about the creation of the ‘self’, and maybe one day, the genesis of consciousness itself. As well as the medical and therapeutic benefits, the study of psychedelics continues to increase our understanding of the human condition.
Read the full study, published by Neuropsychopharmacology here.