Depression changes lives in negative ways and can be devastating. Whether the noticeable effects slowly creep up or make one feel like they’re falling into the black hole of rock-bottom apathy and despair, depression puts a halt to enjoying one’s life.
It is the worst and most stubborn cases that have led researchers to explore the realm of psychedelics for new, more effective treatment for treatment-resistant depression. Severe acute or chronic depression hits people like a ton of bricks, and for them, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. Even mild and moderate cases of depression can lead people to lose hope if the disorder is resistant to treatment. It is believed that depression can be inherited, but even so, the brain has plasticity. The use of psychedelics to change one’s consciousness in order to correct the chemical imbalance and brain activity can promote that plasticity.
The biggest barrier to learning more is of course the legalities. Most countries are resistant to re-classifying Class A and B recreational drugs to be used for other treatments. In the US, any change in this area is likely to be driven by pharmaceutical companies and their influence on Washington, even as US studies show clear success. In other countries such as Portugal, the decriminalization of most drugs means that there is hope of more research being done. Some Australian doctors already support alternative treatments but are faced with a conservative government that hesitated to even buy enough Covid vaccinations, so the hopes of it lending support to alternative medicines aren’t high. Major hospitals welcome such doctors with open arms, but regulations limit what they can actually provide to patients.
Experimental treatment for depression looks promising. When it comes to psychedelics, micro-dosing is effective. But what has happened since the days of Timothy Leary using LSD for terminally ill and depressed patients? Let’s look at what the modern information on the effects of four major psychedelics says:
LSD is produced by nerve cells and has a chemical structure that is very similar to serotonin. Serotonin helps regulate sleep, mood, and digestion, all things that the depressed have trouble with. When they take LSD, their body sends it to certain serotonin receptors. These receptors are the ones most concentrated in the visual cortex and the basal ganglia, parts that are responsible for emotion, learning, and motor control. The result for the depressed is that they change the communication patterns in the brain to start breaking negative spiraling thoughts.
The psilocybin in magic mushrooms affects one’s perceptions of music and other sensory awareness, encouraging one to pay attention to their surroundings. It works similarly to LSD, reducing depression, pain, and negative emotions through the increase of serotonin and glutamate. But unlike LSD, it also creates new links in the brain between previously disconnected areas, allowing for new signal pathways.
Originally used as an anesthetic, ketamine is effective for jump-starting the brain, allowing the depressed to gently go through the processing of emotions. It promotes stimulation of the common neurotransmitter glutamate and the repair of connections between the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. The neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex can communicate effectively, helping the depressed to learn things and create new memories.
MDMA isn’t hallucinogenic at all. However, it induces euphoria, higher energy, and sensitivity to the sensory perception with the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin all at once. It lowers activity in the left amygdala, which controls fear and memory, and raises blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for complex behavior and decision-making.
By this point, you’ve already read about how effective these four psychedelics can be. Are they making it into mainstream treatment, though? In states where psychedelics are not prohibited, people seeking relief from depression can opt for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy in treatment centres or psychedelic therapy clinics. Microdosing allows for greater control of the effects and higher functioning during therapeutic sessions. Because of hallucinations and severe and even life-threatening effects, patients must be under the close supervision of a professional.
Psychedelics are currently an experimental treatment for depression and are available in specific facilities. However, they have the potential to become a mainstream treatment with the submission of additional studies and limited psychedelic therapy approval by health regulators. By micro-dosing in a safe, controlled environment of therapeutic sessions with a professional, patients can have the best outcomes.
Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.
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