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  • Writer's pictureHeather

How Do Psychedelics Affect The Brain

Psychedelics are substances that have powerful, and often unpredictable, hallucinogenic effects on us. The most common psychedelics are LSD, psilocybin and peyote (psychedelic mushrooms), DMT, and ayahuasca. While each of these substances can produce different reactions in individuals, they commonly are grouped together as psychedelics.


In the last decade, discussions around psychedelics have exploded, driven in part by research (questionable, in my opinion) showing their safety and efficacy in treating several mental health conditions ranging from depression to anxiety to addiction.


Psychedelic molecules have obvious, dramatic effects on our thinking and mood. But when it comes to understanding exactly how they exert these effects on our brains, things are a little less clear. Though the mechanisms of each psychedelic may differ, researchers have noted several overarching themes. Here are five of the top ways that psychedelic molecules may influence our brain function:


  1. Affecting neurotransmitters and their receptors - Perhaps the most commonly cited effect of psychedelic drugs relates to their influence on neurotransmitters — chemical signaling molecules in the brain. Many psychedelics are thought to work by acting on a site for the neurotransmitter serotonin. Psychedelic binding to neurotransmitter sites in the brain’s cortex seems to be a major driver of their mind-altering effects.

  2. Changing brain activation patterns - Measuring changes in brain activation patterns has become a popular way to examine the biological effects of psychedelics. In this research, much focus has been on a part of the brain called the “default mode network” (DMN). Activation of the DMN is linked to mind wandering and thinking about the past and future. Psychedelics have repeatedly been shown to change activity and connectivity of this network in the brain.

  3. Helping the brain rewire itself - The brain is always rewiring itself in response to its environment, a process known as neuroplasticity. One of the ways it does so is by changing the connections between neurons. Issues with neuroplasticity have been linked to worse mental health, especially depression. Interestingly, new research in psychedelics suggests that they might help to reverse this deficit.

  4. Influencing the brain’s immune system - As previously described in #1 above, serotonin and its receptors are thought to play a major role in the psychedelic response. It turns out that serotonin itself is involved in multiple aspects of the immune system, and there may be receptors for this neurotransmitter on immune cells and tissues throughout the body and brain.

  5. Altering gene expression in the brain - Genes are stretches of DNA that code for proteins and RNA. They influence every aspect of who we are. The DNA in our genes is relatively rigid, however, it has now been shown that our environment, our choices, and even the food we eat can change our genetic expression for the better or the worse. Some research seems to indicate psychedelics may alter the expression of, and interpretation of, our genes.


I left my strong disclaimer for the end – please, let’s leave the experimentation with psychedelics up to the medical researchers. We can read five different research papers and get five different opinions as to the uses, or possible dangers, of introducing psychedelics into our bodies. Enough said about that.

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