This week, Big Think is partnering with Freethink to bring you amazing stories of the people and technologies that are shaping our future.
- What if vegetative patients are conscious? Neuroscientist Adrian Owen, author of Into The Gray Zone and a professor at Western University in Canada, is using fMRI technology to try to reach the people who may still be aware of their surroundings.
- Consciousness has traditionally been assessed by asking patients to respond to verbal commands. Through brain imaging, Dr Owen and his team were able to prove that these tests are inadequate, and it's estimated that 20 percent of vegetative patients are conscious but are physically incapable of communicating it.
- "Communication is the thing that really makes us human," says Dr. Owen. "If we can give these patients back the ability to make decisions, I think we can give them back a little piece of their humanity."
Crows have their own version of the human cerebral cortex.
Action-packed pallia<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0NzkyMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNzk1NzM1OH0.Tjb3zulFW2gwhteR124F9HGbmdnCqNqQFOBQouieTJ8/img.png?width=980" id="2bbc9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2907e4035e553565f4446e968ee73d92" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Fun with Ozzie and Glenn<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0Njk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzY4Njc2MX0.ZgpsPMCK6qOj2o0kErvVPjdua1EnMCIwCuHHGrb3LiY/img.jpg?width=980" id="acbeb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2e286fecbb228a5ca8aa26fcd19f95a2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="two crows in a tree" />
Ozzie and Glenn not pictured
Credit: narubono/Unsplash<p>The kind of higher intelligence crows exhibited in the new research is similar to the way we solve problems. We catalog relevant knowledge and then explore different combinations of what we know to arrive at an action or solution.</p><p>The researchers, led by neurobiologist <a href="https://homepages.uni-tuebingen.de/andreas.nieder/" target="_blank">Andreas Nieder</a> of the University of Tübingen in Germany, trained two carrion crows (<em>Corvus corone</em>), Ozzie and Glenn.</p><p>The crows were trained to watch for a flash — which didn't always appear — and then peck at a red or blue target to register whether or not a flash of light was seen. Ozzie and Glenn were also taught to understand a changing "rule key" that specified whether red or blue signified the presence of a flash with the other color signifying that no flash occurred.</p><p>In each round of a test, after a flash did or didn't appear, the crows were presented a rule key describing the current meaning of the red and blue targets, after which they pecked their response.</p><p>This sequence prevented the crows from simply rehearsing their response on auto-pilot, so to speak. In each test, they had to take the entire process from the top, seeing a flash or no flash, and then figuring out which target to peck.</p><p>As all this occurred, the researchers monitored their neuronal activity. When Ozzie or Glenn saw a flash, sensory neurons fired and then stopped as the bird worked out which target to peck. When there was no flash, no firing of the sensory neurons was observed before the crow paused to figure out the correct target.</p><p>Nieder's interpretation of this sequence is that Ozzie or Glenn had to see or not see a flash, deliberately note that there had or hadn't been a flash — exhibiting self-awareness of what had just been experienced — and then, in a few moments, connect that recollection to their knowledge of the current rule key before pecking the correct target.</p><p>During those few moments after the sensory neuron activity had died down, Nieder reported activity among a large population of neurons as the crows put the pieces together preparing to report what they'd seen. Among the busy areas in the crows' brains during this phase of the sequence was, not surprisingly, the pallium.</p><p>Overall, the study may eliminate the layered cerebral cortex as a requirement for higher intelligence. As we learn more about the intelligence of crows, we can at least say with some certainty that it would be wise to avoid <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/science/26crow.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">angering one</a>.</p>
UNC School of Medicine researchers identified the amino acid responsible for the trip.
- Researchers at UNC's School of Medicine have discovered the protein responsible for LSD's psychedelic effects.
- A single amino acid—part of the protein, Gαq—activates the mind-bending experience.
- The researchers hope this identification helps shape depression treatment.
What is Bicycle Day?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d346092205da3c9ed10bad283222c9f1"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/L32mAiLXnLs?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Back in the world of clinical science, LSD has always showed promise. That trend continues as restrictions are finally easing up. Understanding LSD's effects on our brain's complex system of networks is an important step toward discovering therapeutic actions. As Roth <a href="https://www.inverse.com/mind-body/how-lsd-binds-to-the-brain-study" target="_blank">says</a> of his research,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Now we know how psychedelic drugs work – finally! Now we can use this information to, hopefully, discover better medications for many psychiatric diseases."</p><p>Using X-ray crystallography, Roth's team discovered a single amino acid—a building block of the protein, Gαq—responsible for binding to serotonin receptors. As LSD is only a partial agonist, they also experimented with a full-agonist designer psychedelic in order to observe complete receptor activation. This amino acid appears to be the master switch for the psychedelic experience. </p><p>While psilocybin has been in the news, the psychedelic renaissance is expanding in all directions. Phase 1 clinical trials on the <a href="https://newatlas.com/science/landmark-clinical-trial-lsd-mdma-mindmed/" target="_blank">combination</a> of LSD, MDMA, and psychotherapy will soon commence. LSD's effects on <a href="https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03866252" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Major Depressive Disorder</a> and <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/first-clinical-trial-shows-micro-doses-of-lsd-can-increase-a-person-s-pain-tolerance" target="_blank">pain management</a> are ongoing. With the <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-18/-magic-mushroom-company-moves-toward-mainstream-in-nasdaq-ipo" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">first psychedelics company</a> to IPO on the American stock market, along with hundreds of millions of dollars of investment flowing into similar companies and organizations, the push for legalized psychedelics intensifies. </p>
Credit: ynsga / Shutterstock<p>Researchers are actively attempting to remove the hallucinogenic component of psychedelics for widespread therapeutic usage—<a href="https://www.healtheuropa.eu/could-ibogaine-offer-a-revolutionary-long-term-solution-to-addiction/100635/" target="_blank">trials</a> using ibogaine for addiction treatment, for example. Identifying the chemical effects of psychedelics on our brains is an essential step in that process.</p><p>Of course, believing psychedelics <em>only</em> matters to brain chemistry is problematic as well. The rituals associated with their use are just as relevant. The "<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Set_and_setting" target="_blank">set and setting</a>" model espoused by Timothy Leary reminds us that biology isn't everything; environmental factors play just as important a role in mental health. </p><p>Isolating specific chemicals without understanding the impact of the drug <em>and</em> the environment overlooks the holistic nature of the psychedelic experience. For example, ketamine trials <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/ketamine-depression" target="_self">were rushed</a> and could potentially backfire; we can't afford to make that mistake again. </p><p>Still, understanding the pathways LSD utilizes is an important step forward. As Roth says, "Our ultimate goal is to see if we can discover medications which are effective, like psilocybin, for depression but do not have the intense psychedelic actions." In a world where more people are growing anxious and depressed by the day, every intervention should be explored.</p><p> --</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Another study confirms the positive effects of psychedelics on mental health.
- Two studies found reduced rates in depression severity, suicidal ideation, and experiential avoidance four weeks after taking psychedelics.
- With hundreds of millions of dollars in investment flowing into psychedelics companies, a renaissance in the field is occurring.
- Researchers hope these findings will lead to better therapeutic modalities for mental health disorders.
How psychedelics can treat depression - Robin Carhart Harris<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="301a6abfe9b5abf04568acee9fde3592"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/ipycirzLwwA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Dr Robin Carhart-Harris is the head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London. He's published nearly a <a href="https://www.imperial.ac.uk/people/r.carhart-harris/publications.html" target="_blank">hundred studies</a> on psychedelics. A <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00782/full" target="_blank">recent research article</a>, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, found that the effects of psychedelics are associated with a decrease in the severity of depression and suicidal ideation.</p><p>The two studies in the article include 358 volunteers. Each participant filled out questionnaires about their levels of depression, suicidal ideation, and experiential avoidance—"openness to one's experiences and engagement in behaviors that are congruent with one's values." They then took part in either ceremonial psychedelic consumption (as in an ayahuasca ritual) or non-ceremonial usage. Carhart-Harris's team followed up two weeks and four weeks later. </p><p>The parameters of the first study were broad. The individuals had a variety of psychedelics to choose from: LSD, ayahuasca, DMT, salvia divinorum, mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms, or ibogaine. Interestingly, respondents that planned on using <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/ketamine-depression" target="_blank">ketamine</a> were excluded. While the sedative has recently been touted as a psychedelic, it's not classically considered in this regard. </p><p>The second study was slightly more structured, as the team accepted participants attending a psychedelic ceremony. This is especially important given the work by organizations like MAPS ( Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), which is <a href="https://mapspublicbenefit.com/training/" target="_blank">training psychedelic therapists</a> in the hopes of legalized MDMA by 2023.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Such ceremonies usually involve the presence of one or more "facilitators"<em>—</em>individuals who aim to provide a safe, conducive environment, emotional support, as well as certain contextual stimuli which are intended to enhance or structure the psychedelic experience."</p>
Photo: fran_kies / Shutterstock<p>This research differs from previous studies in that psychedelic usage was not conducted in a clinical setting. As the environment is an important component of the psychedelic ritual, researchers are more likely to receive real-world results from anecdotal experiences. Letting go in a clinic poses challenges. <br></p><p>The results, the team writes, were overwhelmingly positive. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Across two separate studies, we found significant decreases in depression severity and suicidal ideation 4-weeks after psychedelic use… We found that use of psychedelics was associated with decreases in experiential avoidance 2-weeks later and was sustained for at least 4-weeks."</p><p>Psychedelic researchers will continue to face is the difficulty of implementing a control group, although at least <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-020-05464-5" target="_blank">one study</a> found that the placebo effect is relevant. A larger barrier will be financial support from pharmaceutical companies with vested interests in current drug protocols. </p><p>That said, this renaissance shows no signs of slowing. During a time when rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are rising, a return to psychedelic rituals can help chip away at the frustration and confusion of this moment. These substances have been used for millennia to keep societies intact. Such ceremonies are sorely needed right now. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.
- There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
- "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
- "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.