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Spotlight on the psychedelic experience

We continue our look back at the heritage of the Beckley Foundation’s ground-breaking research programmes and the potential for Beckley Psytech, which leverages the Foundation’s knowledge and research capabilities through a close strategic partnership. This latest instalment of the Science Explained series examines the link between the acute psychedelic experience and longer-term changes.

Much of the Beckley Foundation’s work is driven by a desire to clarify how psychedelics can ease psychological distress of all kinds. The Foundation’s ground-breaking studies have played a pivotal role in the field, paving the way for modern research into psychedelic-assisted therapy for depression and addiction. This research provides unique insights into the way psychedelics exert their therapeutic potential.

The experience of self-transcendence and oneness with the universe, also known as ‘ego dissolution', is a key feature of the psychedelic experience and was reported by the majority of the Beckley Foundation’s research participants. Many described it as one of the most personally significant and spiritually meaningful experiences of their lives.

Through these so-called ‘peak’ experiences, psychedelics in combination psychotherapy appear to hit a ‘reset button’ allowing people to shift the trajectory of their lives, with the potential for long-lasting therapeutic benefits, as well as positive changes in mood, wellbeing, and personality.

This observation has major implications for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, indicating ways in which psychedelic compounds enable patients to break free from the hyperactivity of rigid, maladaptive thought patterns that underlie hard-to-treat conditions such as depression, anxiety, and addiction.

Patients who demonstrated the greatest improvement in their depression scores were those who had undergone a greater mystical experience during the psychedelic intervention. Lower ‘peak’ experiences were reported in those with weaker therapeutic responses.

The neural correlate of the psychedelic experience

Those who responded to the psychedelic experience showed:

  • A decrease in activity and functional integrity within the default-mode network (DMN), a collection of widespread brain areas that work together to control self-awareness
  • An increase in communication between distinct brain networks
  • A more complex, less predictable, more fluid or ‘plastic’ state, which may allow the overcoming of rigid, maladaptive thoughts patterns which underlie psychological illnesses such as depression and addiction
  • Extended connectivity of the visual cortex to over twenty extra brain regions, including those involved in memory and emotional processing, which may be associated with participants reporting ‘seeing’ more complex visual imagery with their eyes closed

How is Beckley Psytech building on this research?

The Beckley Foundation’s work has been transformational and we aim to build on it with specific research programmes designed to further our understanding of the psychedelic experience, learning more about how different compounds can be used to treat a variety of serious mental health conditions.

Two of our programmes are reaching key milestones in their development. We are shortly starting a trial exploring low-dose psilocybin for treating short-lasting unilateral neuralgiform headache attacks (SUNHA), and we’ll be launching a Phase 1 trial in 5-MeO-DMT later this year which will measure ‘peak’ psychedelic experiences in volunteers.

Linked to this, we recently partnered with specialist education platform Fluence to produce professional training materials for administering psychedelic-assisted therapy. We’re working together to develop a training manual that will enable qualified healthcare professionals to deliver psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy using synthetic 5-MeO-DMT.

As we advance our research one of our top priorities is to examine how we can best integrate digital technology into our approach. New drugs are just part of the solution but to really optimise the experience and outcomes for patients, and reduce healthcare resource utilisation, we need to deliver personalised and predictive care. We’re very excited about the options we are exploring within the digital medicine and therapeutic classes.