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R. Carhart-Harris

How Depression Can Be Treated with a Psychedelic Trip

If you’re interested in psychedelics, then you might have heard of the work of Robin Carhart-Harris, who conducted much of the most relevant research in the world of psychedelics together with his team at Imperial College in London.

In this look back at ICPR 2016 we will highlight the talk he held about his team’s trials with psychedelics-assisted psychotherapy, where he also showed some beautiful visuals of his team’s brain research, which happened to become some of the most famous psychedelic brain imagery known on the internet. 

Like our upcoming ICPR 2022 near Amsterdam, the edition in 2016 strove to bring together as many relevant studies from psychedelics as possible, and Carhart-Harris’ talk was most certainly a highlight. His research has been cited often and his talk was one of the best-watched from that year’s ICPR on our Youtube channel.

In his talk, Carhart-Harris talks about the results of his research – that psychedelics can cause a rise in cognitive flexibility, neuroplasticity, creative thinking, imaginative suggestibility, emotional lability, positive moods, and optimism. 

He also touches on the idea of depressive realism, a trend he has seen in patients suffering from depression. He describes their depression as a “sort of delusion”, where his patients “don’t see the world as it really is. There is this really quite evident pessimism bias, that is normalised post-treatment with psilocybin.”

A testimony of one of the participants is featured in the talk:

26:35 — ‘Although it’s early days yet, the results are amazing. I feel more confident and calm than I have in such a long time. My outlook has changed significantly too, I’m more aware that it’s pointless to get wrapped up in endless negativity. I also feel as if I’ve seen a much clearer picture. [Now] I can enjoy things the way I used to, without the cynicism, without the oppression. At its most basic. I feel like I used to before the depression.”

Brain Scans

One way to go about investigating psychedelics is by making fMRI brain scans. These scans are made of healthy and depressed individuals before, during and after a psychedelic experience. This way, the brain can be observed for changes.

Through these scans, the team got insights into the inner workings of the brain during psychedelic trips, and how they correlate with described experiences of volunteers, like ego-death. This is a type of experience in which people who are under the influence of psychedelics describe a certain loss of self, and a deeper connection with the wider universe or nature. 

Carhart’s studies have highlighted that the Default Brain Network may be connected with our sense of self – our ego –  and that the lower activity of this network during a psychedelic session may be associated with the occurrence of ego-death.

Some of the brain scans from the research team at Imperial, from 2012.

12:40 — “We see quite reliably a relationship between the magnitude of the disintegration and the default brain network. [..] The greater the disintegration of the default mode network, the greater our volunteers’ ratings of ego-dissolution. ”

During the psychedelic experience induced with psilocybin, the parts of the brain associated with the Default Brain Network show a drastic reduction in activity, often creating the experience of ego-death. The compulsive activity of the Default Brain Network also has been associated with patients that scored higher in depression ratings.

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The Default Brain Network and the Self

Robin Carhart-Harris’s argument is that the Default Brain Network may be the source of what most adult people call the ‘ego’. This network is known as the Default Mode Network because, during our daily lives, this brain network becomes more active when we are idle

The Default Mode is actually a really important part of our mental stability. This network is responsible for keeping our routines in check, making sure that our pending matters stay afloat, and that we’re not overlooking anything.

The mental activity generated by the Default Mode Network is usually stable and consistent day after day. This daily consistency in addition to the fact the DMN is the ‘standard’ mental voice, may contribute to the illusion that the Default Mode Network is the self.

12:58 — [The Default Brain Network is]: “Arguably the best candidate we have for the neural substrates of the self, or the ego, or our identity and personality.” – Robert Carhart-Harris

By analyzing the brains of participants who consumed psilocybin, Carhart’s team noticed that there was a process of renewal happening within the structure of the brain, almost like a general mind reset. This process of rebirth has been reported many times by psychedelic subjects.

17:50 — “We can think of the mind or the brain is reset in the same way that you can think of a computer is malfunctioning and throwing up an error message and you are wondering what you can do. And then you press the reset button and it comes back working nice and smooth as it should.”

In more recent years, Carhart-Harris has worked on building a more unified model of the workings of psychedelics in the brain. He founded the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College in London and focuses on the action of psychedelic drugs in the brain, and their clinical utility as aides to psychotherapy, with a particular focus on depression. He still studies the brain effects of LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and MDMA. 

Robin Carhart-Harris will not be speaking at ICPR 2022, but his colleague and the new head of the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College will: David Nutt

Notes about the author: Alexandre Perrella is a writer for Cabbanis!

Trial of Psilocybin versus Escitalopram for Depression

Abstract

Background: Psilocybin may have antidepressant properties, but direct comparisons between psilocybin and established treatments for depression are lacking.

Methods: In a phase 2, double-blind, randomized, controlled trial involving patients with long-standing, moderate-to-severe major depressive disorder, we compared psilocybin with escitalopram, a selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitor, over a 6-week period. Patients were assigned in a 1:1 ratio to receive two separate doses of 25 mg of psilocybin 3 weeks apart plus 6 weeks of daily placebo (psilocybin group) or two separate doses of 1 mg of psilocybin 3 weeks apart plus 6 weeks of daily oral escitalopram (escitalopram group); all the patients received psychological support. The primary outcome was the change from baseline in the score on the 16-item Quick Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology-Self-Report (QIDS-SR-16; scores range from 0 to 27, with higher scores indicating greater depression) at week 6. There were 16 secondary outcomes, including QIDS-SR-16 response (defined as a reduction in score of >50%) and QIDS-SR-16 remission (defined as a score of ≤5) at week 6.

Results: A total of 59 patients were enrolled; 30 were assigned to the psilocybin group and 29 to the escitalopram group. The mean scores on the QIDS-SR-16 at baseline were 14.5 in the psilocybin group and 16.4 in the escitalopram group. The mean (±SE) changes in the scores from baseline to week 6 were -8.0±1.0 points in the psilocybin group and -6.0±1.0 in the escitalopram group, for a between-group difference of 2.0 points (95% confidence interval [CI], -5.0 to 0.9) (P = 0.17). A QIDS-SR-16 response occurred in 70% of the patients in the psilocybin group and in 48% of those in the escitalopram group, for a between-group difference of 22 percentage points (95% CI, -3 to 48); QIDS-SR-16 remission occurred in 57% and 28%, respectively, for a between-group difference of 28 percentage points (95% CI, 2 to 54). Other secondary outcomes generally favored psilocybin over escitalopram, but the analyses were not corrected for multiple comparisons. The incidence of adverse events was similar in the trial groups.

Conclusions: On the basis of the change in depression scores on the QIDS-SR-16 at week 6, this trial did not show a significant difference in antidepressant effects between psilocybin and escitalopram in a selected group of patients. Secondary outcomes generally favored psilocybin over escitalopram, but the analyses of these outcomes lacked correction for multiple comparisons. Larger and longer trials are required to compare psilocybin with established antidepressants.

Carhart-Harris, R., Giribaldi, B., Watts, R., Baker-Jones, M., Murphy-Beiner, A., Murphy, R., Martell, J., Blemings, A., Erritzoe, D., & Nutt, D. J. (2021). Trial of Psilocybin versus Escitalopram for Depression. The New England journal of medicine, 384(15), 1402–1411. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa2032994

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Self-blinding citizen science to explore psychedelic microdosing

Abstract

Microdosing is the practice of regularly using low doses of psychedelic drugs. Anecdotal reports suggest that microdosing enhances well-being and cognition; however, such accounts are potentially biased by the placebo effect. This study used a ‘self-blinding’ citizen science initiative, where participants were given online instructions on how to incorporate placebo control into their microdosing routine without clinical supervision. The study was completed by 191 participants, making it the largest placebo-controlled trial on psychedelics to-date. All psychological outcomes improved significantly from baseline to after the 4 weeks long dose period for the microdose group; however, the placebo group also improved and no significant between-groups differences were observed. Acute (emotional state, drug intensity, mood, energy, and creativity) and post-acute (anxiety) scales showed small, but significant microdose vs. placebo differences; however, these results can be explained by participants breaking blind. The findings suggest that anecdotal benefits of microdosing can be explained by the placebo effect.

Szigeti, B., Kartner, L., Blemings, A., Rosas, F., Feilding, A., Nutt, D. J., Carhart-Harris, R. L., & Erritzoe, D. (2021). Self-blinding citizen science to explore psychedelic microdosing. eLife, 10, e62878. https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.62878

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Neural and subjective effects of inhaled N,N-dimethyltryptamine in natural settings

Abstract

Background: N,N-dimethyltryptamine is a short-acting psychedelic tryptamine found naturally in many plants and animals. Few studies to date have addressed the neural and psychological effects of N,N-dimethyltryptamine alone, either administered intravenously or inhaled in freebase form, and none have been conducted in natural settings.

Aims: Our primary aim was to study the acute effects of inhaled N,N-dimethyltryptamine in natural settings, focusing on questions tuned to the advantages of conducting field research, including the effects of contextual factors (i.e. “set” and “setting”), the possibility of studying a comparatively large number of subjects, and the relaxed mental state of participants consuming N,N-dimethyltryptamine in familiar and comfortable settings.

Methods: We combined state-of-the-art wireless electroencephalography with psychometric questionnaires to study the neural and subjective effects of naturalistic N,N-dimethyltryptamine use in 35 healthy and experienced participants.

Results: We observed that N,N-dimethyltryptamine significantly decreased the power of alpha (8-12 Hz) oscillations throughout all scalp locations, while simultaneously increasing power of delta (1-4 Hz) and gamma (30-40 Hz) oscillations. Gamma power increases correlated with subjective reports indicative of some features of mystical-type experiences. N,N-dimethyltryptamine also increased global synchrony and metastability in the gamma band while decreasing those measures in the alpha band.

Conclusions: Our results are consistent with previous studies of psychedelic action in the human brain, while at the same time the results suggest potential electroencephalography markers of mystical-type experiences in natural settings, thus highlighting the importance of investigating these compounds in the contexts where they are naturally consumed.

Pallavicini, C., Cavanna, F., Zamberlan, F., de la Fuente, L. A., Ilksoy, Y., Perl, Y. S., Arias, M., Romero, C., Carhart-Harris, R., Timmermann, C., & Tagliazucchi, E. (2021). Neural and subjective effects of inhaled N,N-dimethyltryptamine in natural settings. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 35(4), 406–420. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881120981384

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Trends in the Top-Cited Articles on Classic Psychedelics

Abstract

This study was designed to identify trends in the top-cited classic psychedelic publications. The top 50 publications on classic psychedelics with the greatest total of number of citations and annual citation rate were identified and pooled. Unique articles (n = 76) were dichotomized by median year of publication (2010.5); the differential distribution of study characteristics between the “Recent Cohort” (n = 38) and “Older Cohort” (n = 38) were documented. The Recent Cohort had a greater annual citation rate (median 76.0, IQR 38.5 to 101.5) compared to the Older Cohort (median10.0, IQR 5.2 to 19.3, p < .001). The Recent Cohort included a greater number of clinical studies (n = 26 [68.4%] vs. n = 9 [23.7%]) while the Older Cohort included more basic science and preclinical studies (n = 21 [55.3%] vs. n = 2 [5.3%], p < .001). Psilocybin was the predominant psychedelic studied in the Recent Cohort (n = 25 [65.8%] vs. n = 9 [23.7%]) while lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) was predominantly studied in the Older Cohort (n = 25 [65.8%] vs. n = 18 [47.4%], p = .013). The Recent Cohort included more studies examining affective disorders (n = 15 [39.5%] vs. n = 3 [7.9%]) and substance use disorders (n = 6 [15.8%] vs. n = 0 [0.0%]), while the Older Cohort included a greater number of pharmacological outcomes (n = 29 [76.3%] vs. n = 6 [15.8%], p < .001). This study identified and documented trends in the top-cited classic psychedelic publications. The field is continuing to form a foundational understanding of the pharmacological effects of psychedelics and is now advancing with the identification of therapeutic uses within clinical populations.

Lawrence, D. W., Sharma, B., Griffiths, R. R., & Carhart-Harris, R. (2021). Trends in the Top-Cited Articles on Classic Psychedelics. Journal of psychoactive drugs, 53(4), 283–298. https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.2021.1874573

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Increased sensitivity to strong perturbations in a whole-brain model of LSD

Abstract

Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is a potent psychedelic drug, which has seen a revival in clinical and pharmacological research within recent years. Human neuroimaging studies have shown fundamental changes in brain-wide functional connectivity and an expansion of dynamical brain states, thus raising the question about a mechanistic explanation of the dynamics underlying these alterations. Here, we applied a novel perturbational approach based on a whole-brain computational model, which opens up the possibility to externally perturb different brain regions in silico and investigate differences in dynamical stability of different brain states, i.e. the dynamical response of a certain brain region to an external perturbation. After adjusting the whole-brain model parameters to reflect the dynamics of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) BOLD signals recorded under the influence of LSD or placebo, perturbations of different brain areas were simulated by either promoting or disrupting synchronization in the regarding brain region. After perturbation offset, we quantified the recovery characteristics of the brain area to its basal dynamical state with the Perturbational Integration Latency Index (PILI) and used this measure to distinguish between the two brain states. We found significant changes in dynamical complexity with consistently higher PILI values after LSD intake on a global level, which indicates a shift of the brain’s global working point further away from a stable equilibrium as compared to normal conditions. On a local level, we found that the largest differences were measured within the limbic network, the visual network and the default mode network. Additionally, we found a higher variability of PILI values across different brain regions after LSD intake, indicating higher response diversity under LSD after an external perturbation. Our results provide important new insights into the brain-wide dynamical changes underlying the psychedelic state – here provoked by LSD intake – and underline possible future clinical applications of psychedelic drugs in particular psychiatric disorders.

Jobst, B. M., Atasoy, S., Ponce-Alvarez, A., Sanjuán, A., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M., Carhart-Harris, R., Kringelbach, M. L., & Deco, G. (2021). Increased sensitivity to strong perturbations in a whole-brain model of LSD. NeuroImage, 230, 117809. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2021.117809

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The entropic tongue: Disorganization of natural language under LSD

Abstract

Serotonergic psychedelics have been suggested to mirror certain aspects of psychosis, and, more generally, elicit a state of consciousness underpinned by increased entropy of on-going neural activity. We investigated the hypothesis that language produced under the effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) should exhibit increased entropy and reduced semantic coherence. Computational analysis of interviews conducted at two different time points after 75 μg of intravenous LSD verified this prediction. Non-semantic analysis of speech organization revealed increased verbosity and a reduced lexicon, changes that are more similar to those observed during manic psychoses than in schizophrenia, which was confirmed by direct comparison with reference samples. Importantly, features related to language organization allowed machine learning classifiers to identify speech under LSD with accuracy comparable to that obtained by examining semantic content. These results constitute a quantitative and objective characterization of disorganized natural speech as a landmark feature of the psychedelic state.

Sanz, C., Pallavicini, C., Carrillo, F., Zamberlan, F., Sigman, M., Mota, N., Copelli, M., Ribeiro, S., Nutt, D., Carhart-Harris, R., & Tagliazucchi, E. (2021). The entropic tongue: Disorganization of natural language under LSD. Consciousness and cognition, 87, 103070. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2020.103070

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The potential synergistic effects between psychedelic administration and nature contact for the improvement of mental health

Abstract

Therapeutic psychedelic administration and contact with nature have been associated with the same psychological mechanisms: decreased rumination and negative affect, enhanced psychological connectedness and mindfulness-related capacities, and heightened states of awe and transcendent experiences, all processes linked to improvements in mental health amongst clinical and healthy populations. Nature-based settings can have inherently psychologically soothing properties which may complement all stages of psychedelic therapy (mainly preparation and integration) whilst potentiating increases in nature relatedness, with associated psychological benefits. Maximising enhancement of nature relatedness through therapeutic psychedelic administration may constitute an independent and complementary pathway towards improvements in mental health that can be elicited by psychedelics.

Gandy, S., Forstmann, M., Carhart-Harris, R. L., Timmermann, C., Luke, D., & Watts, R. (2020). The potential synergistic effects between psychedelic administration and nature contact for the improvement of mental health. Health psychology open, 7(2), 2055102920978123. https://doi.org/10.1177/2055102920978123

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Therapeutic effects of classic serotonergic psychedelics: A systematic review of modern-era clinical studies

Abstract

Objective: To conduct a systematic review of modern-era (post-millennium) clinical studies assessing the therapeutic effects of serotonergic psychedelics drugs for mental health conditions. Although the main focus was on efficacy and safety, study characteristics, duration of antidepressants effects across studies, and the role of the subjective drug experiences were also reviewed and presented.

Method: A systematic literature search (1 Jan 2000 to 1 May 2020) was conducted in PubMed and PsychINFO for studies of patients undergoing treatment with a serotonergic psychedelic.

Results: Data from 16 papers, representing 10 independent psychedelic-assisted therapy trials (psilocybin = 7, ayahuasca = 2, LSD = 1), were extracted, presented in figures and tables, and narratively synthesized and discussed. Across these studies, a total of 188 patients suffering either cancer- or illness-related anxiety and depression disorders (C/I-RADD), major depressive disorder (MDD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or substance use disorder (SUD) were included. The reviewed studies established feasibility and evidence of safety, alongside promising early data of efficacy in the treatment of depression, anxiety, OCD, and tobacco and alcohol use disorders. For a majority of patients, the therapeutic effects appeared to be long-lasting (weeks-months) after only 1 to 3 treatment session(s). All studies were conducted in line with guidelines for the safe conduct of psychedelic therapy, and no severe adverse events were reported.

Conclusion: The resurrection of clinical psychedelic research provides early evidence for treatment efficacy and safety for a range of psychiatric conditions, and constitutes an exciting new treatment avenue in a health area with major unmet needs.

Andersen, K., Carhart-Harris, R., Nutt, D. J., & Erritzoe, D. (2021). Therapeutic effects of classic serotonergic psychedelics: A systematic review of modern-era clinical studies. Acta psychiatrica Scandinavica, 143(2), 101–118. https://doi.org/10.1111/acps.13249

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Hallucinations Under Psychedelics and in the Schizophrenia Spectrum: An Interdisciplinary and Multiscale Comparison

Abstract

The recent renaissance of psychedelic science has reignited interest in the similarity of drug-induced experiences to those more commonly observed in psychiatric contexts such as the schizophrenia-spectrum. This report from a multidisciplinary working group of the International Consortium on Hallucinations Research (ICHR) addresses this issue, putting special emphasis on hallucinatory experiences. We review evidence collected at different scales of understanding, from pharmacology to brain-imaging, phenomenology and anthropology, highlighting similarities and differences between hallucinations under psychedelics and in the schizophrenia-spectrum disorders. Finally, we attempt to integrate these findings using computational approaches and conclude with recommendations for future research.

Leptourgos, P., Fortier-Davy, M., Carhart-Harris, R., Corlett, P. R., Dupuis, D., Halberstadt, A. L., Kometer, M., Kozakova, E., LarØi, F., Noorani, T. N., Preller, K. H., Waters, F., Zaytseva, Y., & Jardri, R. (2020). Hallucinations Under Psychedelics and in the Schizophrenia Spectrum: An Interdisciplinary and Multiscale Comparison. Schizophrenia bulletin, 46(6), 1396–1408. https://doi.org/10.1093/schbul/sbaa117

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