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Psychedelic drug induces feelings of "oceanic boundlessness"

A recent study has revealed that psilocybin, the active psychedelic compound in “magic mushrooms,” induces a state of hyperconnectivity in the brain, linked to the ego-dissolving experiences and feelings of oceanic boundlessness. 

These findings, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, offer insights into the mystical experiences reported during psychedelic use and their potential therapeutic benefits for psychiatric disorders like depression.

Psychedelic state of oceanic boundlessness 

The term “oceanic boundlessness” describes a sense of unity, bliss, and spiritual experience often associated with psychedelics. 

In one of the pioneering brain imaging studies in this field, researchers identified a specific connection between the psychedelic state and dynamic changes in whole-brain connectivity. 

Previous research had already noted increased static global brain connectivity under psychedelics, but this study demonstrated that the hyperconnected state is dynamic and corresponds with the feeling of oceanic boundlessness, a key aspect of the psychedelic experience.

Psychedelics and brain activity 

Johannes G. Ramaekers, a professor of psychopharmacology and behavioral toxicology at Maastricht University, is the study’s lead investigator.

“Psilocybin has been one of the most studied psychedelics, possibly due to its potential contribution in treating different disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, death-related anxiety, depression, treatment-resistant depression, major depressive disorder, terminal cancer-associated anxiety, demoralization, smoking, and alcohol and tobacco addiction,” said Professor Ramaekers.

“What was not fully understood is what brain activity is associated with these profound experiences.”

Psilocybin enhances mental perspectives

The analysis revealed that psilocybin causes significant changes in the brain and experiences. The brain’s propensity to enter a hyperconnected-hyperarousal state under psilocybin suggests the potential for varied mental perspectives. 

These findings shed light on the intricate relationship between brain dynamics and subjective experiences under psilocybin, offering valuable insights into the neurophysiology and experiential aspects of the psychedelic state.

“Taken together, averaged and dynamic connectivity analyses suggest that psilocybin alters brain function such that the overall neurobiological pattern becomes functionally more connected, more fluid, and less modular,” Ramaekers said.

Hyperconnected brain patterns

The researchers analyzed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data from two groups: 22 individuals who received psilocybin and 27 who received a placebo. 

During the peak effects of the drug, those who took psilocybin reported significant phenomenological changes compared to the placebo group. 

Brain connectivity analysis revealed a recurring pattern of global region-to-region connectivity in the psilocybin group, potentially explaining the diverse mental associations participants experienced.

This hyperconnected pattern was closely linked to feelings of oceanic boundlessness and unity, indicating a significant connection between brain dynamics and subjective experiences.

The findings suggest that the ego-dissolving effects of psilocybin, rather than its hallucinogenic properties, are more strongly correlated with this hyperconnected brain state.

Ego-modifying effects of psychedelics 

“Psychedelic drugs like psilocybin are often referred to as hallucinogens both scientifically and colloquially. As such, we expected that the hallucinatory dimensions of experience would correlate the highest with psilocybin’s hyperconnected pattern,” explained co-author Larry Fort, a PhD student at the University of Liège.

“However, hallucinatory experience had a strong, but weaker correlation with this pattern than ego-modifying experiences. This led us to formulate the term ‘egotropic’ to draw attention to these ego-modifying effects as important, perhaps even more so than their hallucinogenic counterparts.”

Investigating the therapeutic effects of psychedelics 

Cameron S. Carter is the Editor-in-Chief of Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging and a neuroscientist at the University of California Irvine

“This study uses readily available resting state fMRI images acquired after psilocybin ingestion to provide new insights into the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying the subjective and clinical effects of the drug,” noted Carter.

“It sets the stage for future studies using other psychedelic agents to examine whether the dynamic connectivity effects reflect a general mechanism for the therapeutic effects of these compounds.”

Producing the best clinical outcomes 

“We were pleasantly surprised to learn that the brain pattern of hyperconnected regions was further characterized by lower global signal amplitude, which works as a proxy to heightened cortical arousal,” said study senior author Athena Demertzi, an expert in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Liège.

“So far, this is the first time that such approximation of arousal levels using fMRI was attempted in psychedelic research. This might be an important correlation as we move towards a full characterization of brain states under psychedelics.”

“Given the resurgence in research regarding the psychotherapeutic applications of psychedelic drugs, our results are pertinent to understanding how subjective experience under psychedelics influences beneficial clinical outcomes.” 

“Is the effect driven by ego-dissolution? By hallucinations? As such, our work exemplifies how the strong inter-relatedness between egotropic effects of moderate dose psilocybin and its hyperconnected brain pattern can inform clinical focus on specific aspects of phenomenology, such as ego-dissolutions.” 

“With this information, healthcare professionals may learn how to best engineer psychedelic therapy sessions to produce the best clinical outcomes.”


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