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Psilocybin may boost our ability to learn and explore

A remarkable study has shed new light on how psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic compound, affects our ability to learn and explore.

The research suggests that the substance enhances exploratory behavior without impairing learning.

This marks the first investigation into how psilocybin influences reinforcement learning, a type of learning based on rewards and cues.

Understanding psilocybin

Psilocybin is found in certain “magic” mushrooms and has been used for centuries in various cultures for spiritual and ritual purposes.

When ingested, this substance converts into psilocin, which interacts with serotonin receptors in the brain and leads to altered states of consciousness, changes in perception, mood, and cognition.

Recently, psilocybin has gained attention for its potential therapeutic benefits, particularly in treating psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.

Insights from the study

Andrea F. Casanova, a psychiatry resident at the University of Zurich, and her team conducted the study to explore psilocybin’s effects on learning when emotional cues are involved.

“Psilocybin has shown promise in treating mental health conditions like depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and substance use disorder among others,” said Casanova. “Understanding how psilocybin affects the cognitive capacities required for therapy helps optimize therapeutic approaches.”

The study involved 30 healthy volunteers, aged 29 on average, with no personal or family history of major psychiatric disorders or significant medical conditions.

Participants were randomly assigned to receive either psilocybin or a placebo in two sessions spaced two weeks apart.

Dosages were adjusted based on body weight, and the study employed a double-blind method to minimize bias.

EmotLearn task

The core of the study was the EmotLearn task, a probabilistic learning task designed to investigate how emotional cues influence learning.

Participants aimed to maximize virtual monetary rewards by selecting between two symbols, with emotional cues (neutral or fearful faces) presented before the symbols either consciously or subconsciously.

Each participant completed 240 trials, resulting in a comprehensive dataset of 7,200 trials for analysis. The results indicated that psilocybin did not impair learning compared to the placebo.

Both groups demonstrated similar learning curves, indicating that the substance preserves the ability to learn from rewards.

Interestingly, psilocybin induced higher exploratory behavior, with participants showing greater variability in their choices, suggesting an increased willingness to explore different options.

Role of emotional cues

The impact of emotional cues on learning varied. Subconscious cues significantly disrupted learning under psilocybin, particularly with neutral faces, indicating that the drug might interfere with processing subtle emotional cues.

However, conscious neutral cues led to better learning outcomes with psilocybin, highlighting a nuanced effect where the mode of presentation plays a critical role.

Dosage matters

Dosage effects were notable. The 20 mg dose of psilocybin significantly improved learning rates compared to placebo, suggesting a dose-dependent enhancement in cognitive flexibility and learning efficiency.

However, the 15 mg dose resulted in poorer performance compared to placebo, indicating that psilocybin’s effects vary with dosage.

Participants who received psilocybin first performed worse overall compared to those who received placebo first, suggesting initial exposure to the substance might introduce cognitive or emotional disruption affecting subsequent task performance.

Reaction times were generally slower under psilocybin, indicating a general slowing of cognitive processing. However, those on the highest dose exhibited faster reaction times compared to the mid-dose group, underscoring the complex relationship between dosage and cognitive effects.

“We thought psilocybin would fare equally or worse than placebo in a learning task, but the higher dosage led to better performance and faster reaction times,” Casanova told PsyPost.

Psilocybin’s impact on emotional perception

Despite subjective reports of impaired vigilance and cognition under psilocybin, objective performance measures did not reflect a significant decline.

This discrepancy underscores the need to consider both subjective experiences and objective data when evaluating psychedelics’ cognitive effects.

“Psilocybin broadens the window of emotional perception, offering a novel perspective and potentially disrupting maladaptive thought patterns,” Casanova explained. “Learning is not impeded when in an altered state of awareness induced by psilocybin, as applied in sessions of psychedelics-assisted psychotherapy.”

However, the study had limitations, including a small sample size and a focus on short-term effects. Future research with larger groups and long-term studies are needed to understand psilocybin’s lasting impact on learning and cognition.

Casanova emphasized the importance of careful screening and instruction for patients undergoing psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, which remains illegal in many parts of the world. Legal regulations and guidelines must be followed to ensure safety and efficacy.

This research paves the way for a deeper understanding of psilocybin’s potential in therapeutic settings, offering hope for innovative treatments for mental health conditions.

The study is published in the journal iScience.


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