When one experiences trauma, issues that may arise do not stem from actual physical pain. Rather, the trauma results when one disassociates from the part of themselves that had to bear the experience. Only recently have researchers begun to understand this; this revelation, however, has led to studies involving the consumption of psychedelic substances, such as LSD. The conclusions of such reports, such as the latest published in the journal of Scientific Reports, are changing everything we thought we knew about mental illness.
For the study, researchers used a new mathematical method to analyze brain activity. The method is known as connectome-harmonic decomposition and maps distinctive patterns of neural connections. In other words, it is like a wiring diagram of the brain. The researchers used this tool to examine how LSD, specifically, causes alterations in consciousness.
“We applied a new analysis, a harmonic decoding of fMRI data, which looks at neural activity in a new way; as a combination of harmonic waves in the brain that we call ‘connectome harmonics’,” said lead author Selen Atasoy, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Brain and Cognition at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. “The connectome harmonics we used to decode brain activity, which was first introduced in a Nature Communication publication in 2016, are universal harmonic waves, such as sound waves emerging within a musical instrument, but adapted to the anatomy of the brain, i.e. to the human connectome.”
According to the researcher, translating fMRI data into the “harmonic language” is not that different than decomposing a complex musical piece into musical notes. “The connectome-harmonic decoding of the fMRI data under LSD showed that LSD not only increases the total energy of the brain but also enriches the repertoire of connectome harmonics – the basic elements of this harmonic language,” said Asatoy.
For the trial, 12 participants agreed to take either LSD or a placebo and have their brain activity monitored. After analyzing the fMRI data, the researchers concluded that the repertoire expansion did not occur in a random matter but instead, was structured. This “suggests a reorganisation of brain dynamics and the emergence of new type of order in the brain,” Atasoy said. “We also found that LSD selectively activated high-frequency connectome harmonics and caused the brain activity to self-organize at criticality, right at the balance between order and chaos.”
“In summary, we found that what LSD does to your brain seems to be similar to jazz improvisation; just like improvising jazz musicians use many more musical notes in a spontaneous and non-random fashion, your brain combines many more of the harmonic waves (connectome harmonics) spontaneously yet in a structured way,” explained Atasoy.
Atasoy told PsyPost that when he came across studies conducted by Dr. Gabor Mate, he was astonished to see how patients under the effect of psychedelics were able to “reclaim and integrate their most traumatic experiences and how that led to a powerful healing process.”
“It is probably due to this effect of psychedelics that a very strong, natural psychedelic – ayahuasca – is considered a very powerful plant medicine in various indigenous cultures and has been used in shamanic healing ceremonies for centuries. On the other hand, neuroscience today has another very powerful tool; the imaging technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) allow us to visualise the brain activity of a person,” explained the researcher.
“My research focuses on understanding the changes in brain activity caused by psychedelics using these functional neuroimaging datasets. In the future, my hope is that we can gain some insights into the neural mechanisms underlying the therapeutic effect of psychedelics and also of other therapeutic tools.”
While there is much more to learn about the brain mechanisms underlying LSD’s effects, Atasoy and his team perceive this latest research as a stepping stone. “I think this study was an important step towards understanding the effect of LSD, and potentially other psychedelics, in terms of energy, frequency and the repertoire of brain states,” Atasoy remarked. “It also provided the first experimental evidence to suggest that LSD tunes brain dynamics towards criticality – a delicate balance between order and disorder.”
“But in this study we haven’t yet looked at the neuronal mechanisms that cause these changes in the brain activity and in brain dynamics. I think it is quite important to link these findings to the effects of neurotransmitters, i.e. to the known effects of the psychedelics at a neuronal level.”
“Also, it would be of great interest to explore how and why these changes in brain activity relate to a person’s subjective experience such as mood changes under the effect of psychedelics,” Atasoy added. “Although this is rather a long term research question, it is a crucial one, as it can give us a better understanding of the roots of psychedelics’ therapeutic effect.”
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