Bridging psychedelic-induced cognitive effects to therapeutic impacts

A bounty of new research has invigorated understanding of the medical and behavioral benefits of psychedelics. Investigations are unveiling newfound insight of the cognitive effects induced by psychedelic substances and their potential to enhance therapeutic impacts for patients, according to a recent report from the Cognitive Neuroscience Society.

Highlights from their recent report include:

  • Psilocybin can trigger spontaneous creative insights while also decreasing deliberate, task-specific creativity.
  • Newfound insights in patients following psychedelic use may lead to more effective therapy and increased patient coping abilities.
  • Psychedelics offer the potential to overwrite harmful memories that negatively impact a patient ‘s ability to benefit from therapy.
  • Psychedelics may continue to positively impact self-image and coping skills in patients long after consumption.

The study of psychedelic substances, e.g., lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin, in treating patients with mental health disorders such as depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and conditions relating to anxiety and addiction, have been on the rise for the last 20 years. Many studies have examined the effects of psychedelic substances in patients receiving treatment within controlled, clinical settings. In such settings, the most scrutinized outcomes are typically those pertaining to the short- and long-term therapeutic benefits and drawbacks of specific psychedelic substances for the select group(s) of patients studied. Resultantly, focus on other potential outcomes arising during the course of psychedelic treatment, namely changes in patient cognition, often falls to the wayside, with measurement and assessment protocols for such changes veering on the outdated and simplistic. This phenomena stems from a circumstance of design, rather than intention, as most clinical studies involve medical professionals who are most visibly relevant to the task at hand, i.e., patient monitoring during the course of psychedelic assisted therapy.

The latest swath of studies examining the therapeutic potential of psychedelics have adopted a different approach, from the perspective of a different type of medical professional. Neuroscientist experts in the field of cognition have provided greater dimension to the previously lacking neurocognitive context essential for tying psychedelic-induced cognitive changes with therapeutic responses seen in patients. Cognitive neuroscientists have investigated the impact of psychedelics on various elements of cognition including ‘memory malleability’ and ‘cognitive creativity.’

Cognitive creativity

Severely rigid patterns of thought pertaining to self-worth, aptitude, and inclusion often contribute to the decay of mental health while covertly strengthening resistance to therapeutic relief for patients suffering with mood-related disorders such as depression and anxiety. Cognitive neuroscientists have hypothesized, from anecdotal reports of enhanced creative capacity after psychedelic use, that the effect of psychedelic consumption may provide therapeutic relief though alleviating negative thought patterns that are not conducive to patient well being and improvement. Such was confirmed by a study reporting increased spontaneous creative insights in patients following the use of psilocybin,  in which uniquely creative ideas were still reported in patients seven days following exposure to psilocybin. This window of time may allow therapy to resonate more strongly for patients of whom would have not otherwise been receptive to treatment, thereby enabling them to garner increased insight of their condition. Newfound personal understanding induced by a psychedelic experience may be integrated with an existing therapeutic regimen to reach strategies that are more conducive to strengthening a patient’s ability to adapt and cope with a diagnosis. 

Memory malleability

The negative sense of self-worth that is often found in patients with mood-related mental health disorders typically arises from memories of traumatic incidents that retain a stronghold over the mind. Negative experiences are lodged into the brain by its hippocampus, a major brain component responsible for transitioning short term memory to long-term memory.  Repetitive negative experiences that create negative memories are therefore susceptible to transitioning into having a long term presence within the brain.  Cognitive neuroscientists have suggested that psychedelics may enable the brain to minimize or entirely bypass the need for hippocampal function, thereby bypassing any maladaptive or negatively biased ‘coding’ the hippocampus has ingrained into the brain. Through offering the ability to entirely overwrite years of negative memories, psychedelics may provide the opportunity for those otherwise afflicted with pervasively rigid, negative thought patterns to adopt a more flexible approach. Negative thoughts may be re-coded into those of a more positive nature, enabling adaptability and positive coping mechanisms for patients who may continue to benefit from the positive encoding long after the effects of the psychedelic have worn off.

Though cognitive neuroscientists have begun to bridge the gap in understanding of the effects of psychedelic substances and their impacts upon cognition, more research is needed to bring greater clarity to psychedelic effects on the brain and the mechanisms by which certain changes in cognition are created. As more information and cognitive insight is revealed, so too should a focus on adopting different therapeutic methods to aid patients consuming psychedelic substances. Patients in medical studies of psychedelic drugs are often relegated to deriving their own personal insights from their psychedelic experience, with therapists available to provide support in the event of a difficult experience. As no formal therapy apart from the current passive approach is offered to these patients, such should be the impetus for adopting more active, and potentially more effective, therapeutic methods that may enhance the cognitive impacts of psychedelics that neuroscientists are now reporting.