AI mapped psychedelic experiences by brain regions

(ORDO NEWS) — Over the past few decades, psychedelics have been widely branded as dangerous illicit drugs. But a recent surge in scientific research on their use in the treatment of mental illness is spurring a shift in public opinion.

Psychedelics are psychotropic drugs: substances that affect the mental state. Other types of psychotropics include antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs. However, psychedelics and other types of hallucinogens are unique in their ability to temporarily induce intense hallucinations, emotions, and altered self-awareness.

Researchers studying the therapeutic potential of these effects have found that psychedelics can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction, and other mental illnesses.

The intense experiences or “trips” that psychedelics evoke are believed to create a temporary window of cognitive flexibility that allows patients to access elusive parts of their psyches and develop better coping skills and thought patterns.

However, exactly how psychedelics cause these effects is not yet clear. Therefore, we, as researchers in the field of psychiatry and machine learning, were interested in finding out how these drugs affect the brain.

With the help of artificial intelligence, we were able to map the subjective experience of people using psychedelics to specific areas of the brain, down to the molecular level.

Each psychedelic functions differently in the body, and each subjective experience these drugs evoke has different therapeutic effects.

For example, mystical experiences or feelings of oneness and oneness with the world are associated with reduced depression and anxiety. Knowing how each psychedelic creates these specific effects in the body can help clinicians optimize their therapeutic use.

To better understand how these subjective effects play out in the brain, we analyzed over 6,000 written testimonies of hallucinogenic experiences from the Erowid Center, an organization that collects and provides information about psychoactive substances.

We converted this evidence into what is known as the “bag of words” model, which breaks the text into individual words and counts how many times each word occurs. We then mapped the most commonly used words associated with each psychedelic to the receptors in the brain known to bind to each drug.

After using an algorithm to extract the most common subjective experiences associated with these receptor word pairs, we mapped these experiences to different brain regions by matching them to receptor types,

We found both new connections and patterns that confirm what is already known in the scientific literature. For example, changes in sensory perception have been linked to the serotonin receptor in the brain’s visual cortex, which binds to a molecule that helps regulate mood and memory.

The experience of transcendence has been associated with dopamine and opioid receptors in the salience network, a collection of brain regions involved in managing sensory and emotional input. Auditory hallucinations have been associated with a number of receptors located in the auditory cortex.

Our results are also consistent with the leading hypothesis that psychedelics temporarily reduce downstream executive function, or the cognitive processes involved in inhibition, attention, and memory, among others, while enhancing brain regions involved in sensory experience.

The United States is experiencing a deep mental health crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, since the days of Prozac and other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, the most common type of antidepressant, no truly new psychiatric drug has been developed in the 1980s.

Our research shows that it is possible to link diverse and wildly subjective psychedelic experiences to specific areas of the brain. This could lead to new ways to combine existing or as yet undiscovered compounds to achieve desired effects in the treatment of a range of mental illnesses.”

Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof famously suggested, “Psychedelics, used responsibly and with due care, will be to psychiatry what a microscope is to the study of biology and medicine, or a telescope to astronomy.”

As psychedelics and other hallucinogens are increasingly used in clinical and cultural practice, we believe that further research will help to better understand the biological basis of the experiences they evoke and realize their potential.


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