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Study Documents How People on Psilocybin vs. Antidepressants Process Emotions

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A new study has attempted to explore how people on antidepressants such as Lexapro (escitalopram) and psilocybin process emotions on a neural level. The researchers behind the recent study wanted to analyze how people process their emotions when under the influence of psilocybin compared with Lexapro, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) that is commonly used as an antidepressant.

Depression is the largest cause of disability across the globe, affecting tens of millions of people and costing adults in the United States more than $200 billion in 2018.

While some people have greatly benefitted from current therapies, these treatments are ineffective for a majority of depression patients and often leave individuals with side effects including loss of appetite, dizziness, indigestion and low libido.

In recent years, an influx of psychedelic research, dubbed the “psychedelic renaissance,” revealed that hallucinogens can be very effective against various mental -health conditions, delivering long-term benefits at minimal doses and causing few if any severe side effects. Although the research is still in its early days and researchers still don’t understand exactly how psychedelics deliver many of their benefits, the findings have been encouraging enough that investors have poured millions of dollars into furthering psychedelic research.

SSRIs alleviate conditions such as anxiety and depression by increasing serotonin levels in the brain and allowing for improved message transmission between neurons. However, they often cause side effects such as “emotional blunting” by increasing serotonin levels and activity on brain receptors that inhibit action in neurons associated with pleasure and emotions.

The researchers wanted to compare psilocybin’s and antidepressant effect on emotional processing because psychedelics have proven that they can alleviate depression symptoms without causing emotional blunting. Prior studies have revealed that psilocybin can be especially effective against major depressive disorder when paired with talk therapy.

For the study, 46 participants were broken into two groups with 21 receiving Lexapro and 25 receiving psilocybin. Participants in both groups were then shown images expressing happiness, neutrality and fear with researchers taking MRI scans. This happened before the study began, six weeks after participants received either the psychedelic or antidepressant, and a day after the six-week period ended.

The researchers also used several scales to measure the impact of both treatments and evaluate the participants’ experience throughout the study period.

Their findings revealed that the brains of participants who received the antidepressant became less sensitive to emotions such as sadness, fear and happiness after dosing while the psilocybin group did not exhibit similar changes in brain chemistry. Participants in the antidepressant group who reported the strongest reduction in symptoms had lower emotional function while psilocybin patients with the highest reduction in depression symptoms also had higher emotional function.

The findings indicate that psilocybin-assisted therapy boosts emotional acceptance and increases emotional function in patients, significantly aiding in their overall recovery, while escitalopram reduces emotional sensitivity.

As more studies by industry companies such as Compass Pathways PLC (NASDAQ: CMPS) shed more light on the specific mechanisms through which psychedelics exert their influence on human health, the shift in perception toward these substances could accelerate.

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