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Meet the Psychedelic Boom’s First Responders

Meet the Psychedelic Boom’s First Responders

That first year, Fireside trained more than 100 volunteers and conducted some 2,550 conversations with callers—including Greenberg. Within months of reaching Jasmine, he had walked away from his job (and psychedelically high salary) to focus on work “that adds value to the universe.” Eventually he got on the phone with Fireside again—this time not to ask for help but to offer it. By the time we spoke, he’d donated $100,000 and was poised to start as the organization’s CTO, working for free.

There’s a fairly obvious point I should make, maybe one that sometimes gets lost: While exceedingly rare, psychedelics can cause serious harm. A family history of mental illness can propel someone into a psychotic episode. And the symptoms of a trip can potentially obscure a simultaneous medical crisis. A 2022 lawsuit found MAPS partially responsible for the death of Baylee Gatlin, who received care from Zendo volunteers at a music festival in 2017 and later died from organ failure and heat stroke.

“What this movement is doing is absolutely helpful for many people,” says Charles Nemeroff, codirector of the Center for Psychedelic Research & Therapy at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin. But while the “vast number of case reports would suggest that these substances are relatively safe,” he adds, we’re still in the data-gathering phase.

For her part, O’Donnell calls the harm-reduction approach “incredibly valuable.” She also cautions that a single session with even a well-trained trip­sitter won’t necessarily be enough for someone whose past trauma is suddenly surfacing, or who is other­wise having a deeply disturbing experience.

The stakes, Nemeroff notes, are even higher than any one individual’s well-being. “What none of us want to have happen is that the unregulated use of psychedelics lead to tragedies, which then will result in a backlash,” he says. “It’s been so long since we’ve been able to actually study psychedelics.”

For now, there seems little danger of reversing our interest in psychedelics. Sara Gael, a harm reduction officer at MAPS, describes a societal inflection point behind the current psychedelic renaissance. As waves of dysfunction—economic despair, climate change, white supremacy—have surfaced in recent years, people have increasingly looked to these substances to turn the prism on their worlds.

All of this makes me wonder about the real essence of the psychedelic peer support movement. It is, of course, a movement specific to these substances, rooted in a specific context: a time when drug policy remains insistently retrograde and official support systems have crumbled. But maybe it’s also more than that.

Jail, Thorazine, Wavy Gravy, Zendo: As nodes on an arc, these represent a decades-long, mostly underground evolution in how we understand a very particular species of psychic distress, but also in how we help one another at a more general level.

Pires told me that the principles behind contemporary psychedelic peer support apply to regular life too—she uses some of those same skills with her kids. Slow down. Offer calm. Let feelings arise. Maybe good tripsitting isn’t all that different from being a good partner, a good friend, a good relative. And maybe one day we’ll look back and be struck by this era—not so much by our growing interest in these substances, but our shifting understanding of ourselves in their midst.

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How Your Brain Distinguishes Memories From Perceptions

How Your Brain Distinguishes Memories From Perceptions

Memory and perception seem like entirely distinct experiences, and neuroscientists used to be confident that the brain produced them differently, too. But in the 1990s, neuroimaging studies revealed that parts of the brain that were thought to be active only during sensory perception are also active during the recall of memories.

“It started to raise the question of whether a memory representation is actually different from a perceptual representation at all,” said Sam Ling, an associate professor of neuroscience and director of the Visual Neuroscience Lab at Boston University. Could our memory of a beautiful forest glade, for example, be just a re-creation of the neural activity that previously enabled us to see it?

“The argument has swung from being this debate over whether there’s even any involvement of sensory cortices to saying ‘Oh, wait a minute, is there any difference?’” said Christopher Baker, an investigator at the National Institute of Mental Health who runs the learning and plasticity unit. “The pendulum has swung from one side to the other, but it’s swung too far.”

Even if there is a very strong neurological similarity between memories and experiences, we know that they can’t be exactly the same. “People don’t get confused between them,” said Serra Favila, a postdoctoral scientist at Columbia University and the lead author of a recent Nature Communications study. Her team’s work has identified at least one of the ways in which memories and perceptions of images are assembled differently at the neurological level.

Blurry Spots

When we look at the world, visual information about it streams through the photoreceptors of the retina and into the visual cortex, where it is processed sequentially in different groups of neurons. Each group adds new levels of complexity to the image: Simple dots of light turn into lines and edges, then contours, then shapes, then complete scenes that embody what we’re seeing.

In the new study, the researchers focused on a feature of vision processing that’s very important in the early groups of neurons: where things are located in space. The pixels and contours making up an image need to be in the correct places or else the brain will create a shuffled, unrecognizable distortion of what we’re seeing.

The researchers trained participants to memorize the positions of four different patterns on a backdrop that resembled a dartboard. Each pattern was placed in a very specific location on the board and associated with a color at the center of the board. Each participant was tested to make sure that they had memorized this information correctly—that if they saw a green dot, for example, they knew the star shape was at the far left position. Then, as the participants perceived and remembered the locations of the patterns, the researchers recorded their brain activity.

The brain scans allowed the researchers to map out how neurons recorded where something was, as well as how they later remembered it. Each neuron attends to one space, or “receptive field,” in the expanse of your vision, such as the lower left corner. A neuron is “only going to fire when you put something in that little spot,” Favila said. Neurons that are tuned to a certain spot in space tend to cluster together, making their activity easy to detect in brain scans.

Previous studies of visual perception established that neurons in the early, lower levels of processing have small receptive fields, and neurons in later, higher levels have larger ones. This makes sense because the higher-tier neurons are compiling signals from many lower-tier neurons, drawing in information across a wider patch of the visual field. But the bigger receptive field also means lower spatial precision, producing an effect like putting a large blob of ink over North America on a map to indicate New Jersey. In effect, visual processing during perception is a matter of small crisp dots evolving into larger, blurrier, but more meaningful blobs.

Is the Psychedelic Therapy Bubble About to Burst?

Is the Psychedelic Therapy Bubble About to Burst?

In April 2021, a widely anticipated paper in the field of psychedelics dropped. The study, a small trial run at Imperial College London and published in The New England Journal of Medicine, investigated the use of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, to treat depression. Led by Robin Carhart-Harris, who now directs the Neuroscape Psychedelics Division at the University of California, San Francisco, the research compared psilocybin with a standard antidepressant. The findings were somewhat lackluster: it found that the psychedelic was only marginally better than traditional treatments at relieving depression.

Back in 2017, Rosalind Watts, an author on that paper and a former clinical lead for the trial at Imperial, had given a TEDx talk on the power of psilocybin to treat depression, prompted by the time she had spent working on the study. In the talk, she shared her belief that psilocybin could “revolutionize mental health care.” But in February of this year, Watts published a Medium piece in which she expressed regret at her initial unbridled enthusiasm. “I can’t help but feel as if I unknowingly contributed to a simplistic and potentially dangerous narrative around psychedelics; a narrative I’m trying to correct,” she wrote.

“I just reflected on how I myself had got caught up in the black and white of like, ‘This is wonderful,’” she says today. “Now having been through that trial … I’m much more neutral and agnostic.”

We’re firmly in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance, with substances long regarded simply as recreational drugs—such as psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA—being reappraised as potential treatments for a number of mental health conditions. At the same time, legislation and stigma surrounding psychedelics has slowly begun to loosen in recent years, and it increasingly looks like it might shake loose altogether. “Now all of a sudden, within the past year or so, the pendulum has swung all the other way,” says David Yaden, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who studies the subjective effects of psychedelics.

But Yaden thinks the field is in danger of overcorrecting. In a new opinion piece published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Yaden—with his coauthors Roland Griffiths and James Potash, two experts in psychedelics and psychiatry, respectively—argues that if we don’t tread carefully, psychedelic research could end up back where it started: treated with deep suspicion, if not completely outlawed. “I don’t want to be a wet blanket,” Yaden says. “I think there’s a real reason for excitement. But I think it’s a really important message to get out.” 

To trace psychedelics’ potential future, Yaden, Griffiths, and Potash looked to a model called the Gartner Hype Cycle, which can be used to characterize the trend cycle of new technologies, like virtual reality or 4D printing. The pattern has gone something like this: Forbidden for decades, psychedelics began to reemerge in recent years out of fringe underground communities and into labs as potential revolutionary treatments for mental illnesses. Then in 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration granted psilocybin “breakthrough therapy” status for depression, which gives a treatment the fastest possible route to approval. The media leapt at it and startups sprung up, followed by obsessive patenting of psychedelic compounds.

But what began as a welcome glimmer of hope for new ways to treat mental illness (which psychedelics irrefutably are, even if trial results so far have been modest) has morphed into actual misinformation, Yaden argues. Claims began to crop up ranging from the unsubstantiated to the outlandish: that psychedelics can “cure” mental illness, solve massive social problems, and create a “psychedelic utopia.” We’re in the midst of what Yaden and his coauthors call the psychedelic hype bubble. And they argue that scientists should be the ones to burst it.

The Brain Has a ‘Low-Power Mode’ That Blunts Our Senses

The Brain Has a ‘Low-Power Mode’ That Blunts Our Senses

Since leptin is released by fat cells, scientists believe its presence in the blood is likely to signal to the brain that the animal is in an environment where food is ample and there’s no need to conserve energy. The new work suggests that low levels of leptin alert the brain to the malnourished state of the body, switching the brain into low-power mode.

“These results are unusually satisfying,” said Julia Harris, a neuroscientist at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “It is not so common to obtain such a beautiful finding that is so in line with the existing understanding,”

Distorting the Neuroscience?

A significant implication of the new findings is that much of what we know about how brains and neurons work may have been learned from brains that researchers unwittingly put into low-power mode. It is extremely common to restrict the amount of food available to mice and other experimental animals for weeks before and during neuroscience studies to motivate them to perform tasks in return for a food reward. (Otherwise, animals would often rather just sit around.)

“One really profound impact is that it clearly shows that food restriction does impact brain function,” said Rochefort. The observed changes in the flow of charged ions could be especially significant for learning and memory processes, she suggested, since they rely on specific changes happening at the synapses.

“We have to think really carefully about how we design experiments and how we interpret experiments if we want to ask questions about the sensitivity of an animal’s perception, or the sensitivity of neurons,” Glickfeld said.

The results also open up brand-new questions about how other physiological states and hormone signals could affect the brain, and whether differing levels of hormones in the bloodstream might cause individuals to see the world slightly differently.

Rune Nguyen Rasmussen, a neuroscientist at the University of Copenhagen, noted that people vary in their leptin and overall metabolic profiles. “Does that mean, then, that even our visual perception—although we might not be aware of it—is actually different between humans?” he said.

Rasmussen cautions that the question is provocative, with few solid hints to the answer. It seems likely that the conscious visual perceptions of the mice were affected by food deprivation because there were changes in the neuronal representations of those perceptions and in the animals’ behaviors. We can’t know for sure, however, “since this would require that the animals could describe to us their qualitative visual experience, and obviously they cannot do this,” he said.

But so far there also aren’t any reasons to think that the low-power mode enacted by the visual cortical neurons in mice, and its impact on perception, won’t be the same in humans and other mammals.

“These are mechanisms that I think are really fundamental to neurons,” Glickfeld said.

Editor’s note: Nathalie Rochefort is a member of the board of the Simons Initiative for the Developing Brain, which is funded by the Simons Foundation, the sponsor of this editorially independent magazine. Maria Geffen is a member of the advisory board for Quanta.

Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.