Put succinctly, the brain is an electrochemical circuit. By understanding that at a base level, the entire brain functions as a messenger system of chemicals passing from neuron to neuron, the system may be manipulated through the introduction of new chemicals. Antidepressants–the zenith of medical science–are a prime example of how synthetic neurotransmitters may be used to magically fix chemical imbalances…or are they? Neuroscientist Dean Burnett argues in his article “How do antidepressants actually work?” that these “miracle cures” are largely misunderstood and not nearly as successful as is believed, due to the complex roots of depression.
Generally, SSRIs work to increase the neurotransmitter serotonin by preventing it from being broken down by enzymes or brought back into the presynaptic terminal. This means that it lingers in the synapses longer, compensating for the overall lower levels. Serotonin is extremely important in many aspects of behavior, such as mood, anxiety, sexual behavior, and sleep (Watson, 2015). Thus, drugs that allow for its accumulation should hypothetically be effective at relieving depression.
Burnett, however, claims that because depression “manifests in many different ways,” and “how mood is affected can vary substantially,” it is a lot harder to establish an underlying cause and figure out a viable treatment plan on a case-by-case basis (Burnett, 2017). SSRIs aren’t always effective for everyone, and even if they do help ease feelings of depression in certain patients, they may also carry along serious side effects. Burnett states that they are only so commonplace because “for all the flaws and problems they may have, they’re better than nothing, especially when the alternative is untreated depression,” (Burnett, 2017). Is this current practice of “settling” the best that medicine can offer? Or, do patients deserve to explore all avenues of treatment? The key to palliating depressive symptoms and inducing overall higher levels of life satisfaction could lie within a new experimental form of drug therapy: hallucinogens. Drugs such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psychedelic mushrooms are especially promising and could prove extremely useful in treating depression.
The hallucinogens LSD and “magic” mushrooms could potentially help stabilize serotonin levels and increase emotion-processing in patients suffering from depression. Both LSD and the psilocybin found in “shrooms” are shown to strongly stimulate serotonin receptors, and psilocybin has additionally proven to increase disinhibition of emotion-processing regions in the limbic system (Carhart-Harris et al., 2012). This, along with reported “mood changes and feelings of creativity,” demonstrate an extraordinary amount of potential (Watson, 2015). Another alluring benefit is the fact that major hallucinogens seem to have “low addiction potential,” and LSD in particular has few negative side effects (Watson, 2015). Based on this point alone, self-medicating with these drugs is already safer than turning to substances such as alcohol, cocaine, or methamphetamines, which may produce equally pleasurable feelings with much more dangerous side effects.
Dr. William Richards, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, has already begun experimenting with psychedelic mushrooms. Although Richards’ experiments aim to assess “whether a transcendental experience makes leaders more effective and confident in their work and how it alters their religious thinking,” the results show data that could be favorable in the argument for hallucinogens as therapeutic treatments (Devlin, 2017). Richards says, “So far, everyone incredibly values their experience. No one has been confused or upset or regrets doing it” (Devlin, 2017). These psychedelics, which encourage inward exploration and reflection, have also been shown to be “remarkably effective at lifting acute anxiety in cancer patients at the end of life” (Devlin, 2017). Thus, the possibility of success in other fields of psychiatry is strong and should be further explored.
Burnett, Dean. “How Do Antidepressants Actually Work?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 July 2017, www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2017/jul/10/how-do-antidepressants-actually-work.
Devlin, Hannah. “Religious Leaders Get High on Magic Mushrooms Ingredient – for Science.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 8 July 2017, www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jul/08/religious-leaders-get-high-on-magic-mushrooms-ingredient-for-science.
Watson, Neil V. The Mind’s Machine, 2nd Edition. Sinauer Associates, 20101123. 2015. VitalBook file.