From the files of “Why didn’t I get asked to be a part of this study?” and “Did we really need a formal study on this?” University of Zurich researchers have discovered that the hallucinogenic compound in “magic mushrooms” known as psilocybin alleviates feels of social rejection.
Important science did come out of this study. By tracing the impact of psilocybin the researchers were able to see how negative social stimuli are processed in the brain. These pathways are important as they could be targeted by future treatments for depression.
Psilocybin works by binding to serotonin receptors in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps the brain’s response to negative stimuli. Psilocybin inturn reduces the effect of the intensity to which we react to negative stimuli.
According to Katrin Preller “we conducted an earlier study which showed that psilocybin decreases the processing of negative stimuli in general, and now we have narrowed that down to social processing, which is such an important part of everyday life.”
Social rejection results in an emotional response ultimately leading to social pain. Social pain has been associated with increased activity in certain parts of the brain, mainly the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and middle frontal gyrus. The role of serotonin in had not been fully explored which lead the researchers to this “magic mushroom” experiment.
Using 21 volunteers (tough recruiting job there) they asked them to play a game called Cyerball. Cyberball basically is a game of catch within the group. They tracked the brain activity during this game using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The researchers studied the brain activity of players when they were excluded from receiving the ball, a “social rejection.”
They the study participants were asked to play another round, this time half of them received a dose of psilocybin while the other half were disappointed with a placebo. The researchers found that the tripping players’ brain activity showed reduced signs of social pain. Not surprisingly they also reported diluted feelings of rejection. According to their findings that were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers claim this confirms the role of serotonin in social processing in the brain.
“It’s really important to understand what’s going on the brain when we interact socially,” insists Preller, adding that “identifying these brain processes is extremely helpful if we think of future medications.”
The paper notes “increased reactivity to social exclusion is clinically relevant in depression, borderline personality disorder, social anxiety disorder, and other psychiatric disorders.” As such, Preller hopes that one day “we’ll be able to develop medications that target these mechanisms in the psychiatric population.”
These types of treatments are still a little way off and remember, next time you are asked to take part in an experiment, it might end up being more fun than you would think.