The classic anti-drug ads showing a brain as a fried egg may need a little revising. This is what your brain really looks like on drugs–or, at least, this is what a brain looks like on magic mushrooms. Compared to an ordinary brain (shown on the left), a tripping brain is hyperconnected. Brain regions that normally don’t communicate suddenly link up.
Researchers at Imperial College London gave 15 participants psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms. Then they watched what happened in an fMRI machine. While old-school brain research focused on specific regions of the brain, these researchers study networks, the connections between parts of the brain, instead. The results were striking.
“Our results show that when under the influence of magic mushrooms, brain regions that are not usually functioning together are suddenly talking to each other–taking part into the same cognitive process–and we believe this could explain at least some aspects of the psychedelic experience,” says Paul Expert, a neurobiologist and co-author of a new article that published the results of the study.
The research is helping scientists better understand both how brains ordinarily work, and how drugs like psilocybin might eventually be used to treat illnesses like depression.
“As we don’t really understand how the brain functions, slightly perturbing it out of his normal state and observing what happens helps shed some light about how it works, as we can then correlate the perturbed state’s functional organization with perceived changes, like synesthesia,” says Expert.
“As psilocybin is a candidate as a therapeutic help to cure chronic depression, it is important to know as much as possible about its impact on brain function,” he adds.
Next, the researchers plan to do similar work with some other types of drugs. “We plan to extend our analysis to other “drugs” dataset like ketamine, LSD, MDMA,” Expert explains. “The idea being to look for similarities and/or differences to better understand these drugs actions at a functional level and any similarities they share with diseases.”
Ketamine, for example, is considered a good model for schizophrenia, so studying it may help lead to treatments for the disease.
“We are at a very exciting time where we can start to link what happens at the microscopic level–the neurotransmitter level–to higher cognitive functions,” Expert says. “Doing so will help us understand and treat diseases.”