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Are over-the-counter psychedelics in our future?
Mycologist Paul Stamets believes they should be.
- Mycologist Paul Stamets believes psilocybin should be offered over the counter.
- Numerous studies on psychedelics over the past few years are helping to build the case for therapeutic usage.
- Potential benefits include positive mental outlook and reduced depression and anxiety.
Though Alexander Fleming's fame as the father of penicillin took nearly two decades to manifest, the discovery had a profound effect on humankind. Amazingly, every single dose in existence is derived from a single cantaloupe purchased in Peoria. Within a year of scraping mold from that fruit, American pharmaceutical companies were producing 100 million units per month.
The timing was fortuitous as medicine was in great demand during World War II. Antibiotics have since played an essential role in medicine (although sometimes negatively). That could soon change. As Bill Bryson writes in his new book, The Body: A Guide For Occupants, from the fifties through the nineties, Big Pharma churned out three new strains per year. Now the pace is one every other year, and declining.
The reason? We're becoming resistant to antibiotics. The money is drying up. Big Pharma would rather focus on drugs that hook us for life, such as statins and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Even beyond the serious problem of disappearing antibiotics, this profit-driven approach to medicine could be our undoing. Except in cases of medical necessity, no human should take a pill for life. For all the seemingly beneficial qualities of SSRIs, they're proving woefully ineffective (and sometimes downright deadly) over the longterm. We need better solutions.
Enter Paul Stamets, one of the world's foremost experts on fungi. The mycologist was recently a guest on the Joe Rogan Experience, where he's preached the benefits of mycelia before. Discussing psilocybin, the psychedelic strains of mushrooms that have received much attention of late for their potentially therapeutic applications, Stamets noted that there is early research evidence that "the neurogenic benefits of microdosing are greater than the neurogenic benefits of macrodosing."
That's a big claim, but an important one, if true. Microdosing has predominantly been relegated (in the popular media's eyes) to tech workers using various protocols of psilocybin and LSD for productivity gains. Stamets touches on this when saying, "Any new businesses populated in pinnacle by young people who are not doing microdosing are going to be at a competitive disadvantage."
More relevant to the larger population is the potential for psychedelics to treat depression and other mental health disorders. Unlike current medications, serotonergic psychedelics appear to "reboot" certain brain regions, resulting in an improved mental health outlook. One recent study confirms their role in neurogenesis; the authors write, "psychedelics cause both structural and functional changes in cortical neurons."
Another recent study investigated how microdosing affects creativity. Though "creativity" is often treated as an artistic endeavor, it is actually a fundamental aspect of cognition. One effect of depression is an inability to imagine a better future; the depressed feel "stuck." One method for overcoming this mindset is to creatively imagine different outcomes to the problems we face. English drug policy reformer Amanda Feilding calls psychedelics "tools for creativity, because they enable different parts of the brain to work simultaneously, allowing for new combinations of ideas to come together."
For the microdosing study, researchers examined the effects of psychedelic truffles (masses of mycelia that contain psilocybin) in the Netherlands. (Though the Dutch government outlawed psilocybin mushrooms in 2007, they continue to allow the sale of truffles.) Psilocybin binds to serotonin 2A receptors, the result being "enhanced cognitive flexibility, improved associated learning, and hippocampal neurogenesis." It has also been shown to improve optimism and provide a sense of subjective wellbeing.
Researchers did not use a control group for this study, so, as with the gamut of psychedelic research, more research is needed. But we do need it. The FDA is seeking better treatments for chronic mental heath problems. The agency has labeled MDMA research as a breakthrough therapy for PTSD due to positive early evidence of its efficacy. The same agency allows the usage of the psychedelic ketamine (under the name esketamine) to address treatment-resistant depression. Psilocybin has been shown to be effective in treating this condition as well.
Meanwhile, DARPA, part of the United States Department of Defense, is attempting to tamp down the hallucinatory effects of MDMA and psilocybin to treat PTSD and depression in the military. Perhaps the agency should consult with Stamets, who noted the beneficial effects of combining psychedelics with niacin (vitamin B3). According to the mycologist, that helps prevent abuse, dilates blood vessels to better deliver the neurogenic effects of psychedelics, and excites nerve endings.
Beyond government agencies, Stamets's therapeutic model includes local pharmacies.
"I hope to see, in the future, psilocybin mushrooms being sold as over-the-counter vitamins approved by the FDA and stacked with niacin."
Paul Stamets holding up a mushroom.
Beware the danger: the list of maladies that psychedelics are being associated with helping is extensive and must not prematurely be considered therapeutic (as is the case with CBD, for example). That said, the old models are not working and early evidence of the efficacy of psychedelics is positive. The fact that you don't need a heroic dose to treat a number of mental health problems means that a clinically relevant path of investigation lies ahead.
Stamets claims he only takes ritual-sized doses of psilocybin two times a year. (His recent dose of 20 grams is worthy of its own study; my own experience with four grams was harrowing enough.) Following the mycologist's lead, we need to consider both relevant in our culture: trip-sized rituals that provide context and meaning and therapeutic-sized doses that address the greatest mental health issues of today.
Stamets has recently helped launch a microdosing study (which I am beginning next week). It's an anonymous, crowd-sourced correlational study that will track self-reported cognitive performance and mental health attitudes. Since there is no control, the results will be anecdotal, but we mustn't overlook the relevance of personal experiences. As much as we need to lean on science for creating trustworthy therapeutic models, the individual outlook on existence is an equally relevant aspect of mental health.
In The Body, Bryson discusses the fact that our brains don't distinguish between physical and emotional pain. "In many ways," he writes, "we feel the pain we expect to feel." While we should never write off certain forms of chronic pain, perception greatly influences how you physically and emotionally feel. Acts such as having sex, eating food you love, and listening to great music all reduce pain levels, proving its malleability and transiency.
By whatever mechanism they work, psychedelics have long been shown to increase positive outlooks and decrease negative sentiments. That is valuable and needed medicine. We've exhausted the alternatives and found them insufficient. This is not medical advice—just common sense.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.
- A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
- The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
- This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.
Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
A neural crêpe
A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.
So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.
The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."
Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum
Image source: Sereno, et al.
A complicated map
Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."
That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.
It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."
This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."
Bigger and bigger
The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.
"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."
As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."
Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>