Psychedelic drug psilocybin tamps down brain’s ego center

The study also reports psilocybin alters the way the claustrum communicates with brain areas involved in attention, decision making, auditory processing, and memory.

Summary: Psilocybin reduces activity in the claustrum, an area of the brain believed to contribute to consciousness and sense of self. Researchers say the reduced activity may tie in with the reduced sense of self and ego often associated with psychedelic drug use. The study also reports psilocybin alters the way the claustrum communicates with brain areas involved in attention, decision making, auditory processing, and memory.

Source: Johns Hopkins Medicine

Perhaps no region of the brain is more fittingly named than the claustrum, taken from the Latin word for “hidden or shut away.” The claustrum is an extremely thin sheet of neurons deep within the cortex, yet it reaches out to every other region of the brain. Its true purpose remains “hidden away” as well, with researchers speculating about many functions. For example, Francis Crick of DNA-discovery fame believed that the claustrum is the seat of consciousness, responsible for awareness and sense of self.

What is known is that this region contains a large number of receptors targeted by psychedelic drugs such as LSD or psilocybin ¾ the hallucinogenic chemical found in certain mushrooms. To see what happens in the claustrum when people are on psychedelics, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers compared the brain scans of people after they took psilocybin with their scans after taking a placebo.

Their findings were published online on May 23, 2020, in the journal NeuroImage.

The scans after psilocybin use showed that the claustrum was less active, meaning the area of the brain believed responsible for setting attention and switching tasks is turned down when on the drug. The researchers say that this ties in with what people report as typical effects of psychedelic drugs, including feelings of being connected to everything and reduced senses of self or ego.

“Our findings move us one step closer to understanding mechanisms underlying how psilocybin works in the brain,” says Frederick Barrett, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a member of the school’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. “This will hopefully enable us to better understand why it’s an effective therapy for certain psychiatric disorders, which might help us tailor therapies to help people more.”

Because of its deep-rooted location in the brain, the claustrum has been difficult to access and study. Last year, Barrett and his colleagues at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, developed a method to detect brain activity in the claustrum using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The researchers say that this ties in with what people report as typical effects of psychedelic drugs, including feelings of being connected to everything and reduced senses of self or ego. Image is in the public domain.

For this new study, the researchers used fMRI with 15 people and observed the claustrum brain region after the participants took either psilocybin or a placebo. They found that psilocybin reduced neural activity in the claustrum by 15% to 30%. This lowered activity also appeared to be associated with stronger subjective effects of the drug, such as emotional and mystical experiences. The researchers also found that psilocybin changed the way that the claustrum communicated with brain regions involved in hearing, attention, decision-making and remembering.

With the highly detailed imaging of the claustrum provided by fMRI, the researchers next hope to look at the mysterious brain region in people with certain psychiatric disorders such as depression and substance use disorder. The goal of these experiments will be to see what roles, if any, the claustrum plays in these conditions. The researchers also plan to observe the claustrum’s activity when under the influence of other psychedelics, such as salvinorin A, a hallucinogen derived from a Mexican plant.

About this neuroscience research article

Source:
Johns Hopkins Medicine
Media Contacts:
Vanessa McMains – Johns Hopkins Medicine
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Psilocybin acutely alters the functional connectivity of the claustrum with brain networks that support perception, memory, and attention”. by Frederick Barrett et al.
NeuroImage doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.116980

Abstract

Psilocybin acutely alters the functional connectivity of the claustrum with brain networks that support perception, memory, and attention

Psychedelic drugs, including the serotonin 2a (5-HT2A) receptor partial agonist psilocybin, are receiving renewed attention for their possible efficacy in treating a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders. Psilocybin induces widespread dysregulation of cortical activity, but circuit-level mechanisms underlying this effect are unclear. The claustrum is a subcortical nucleus that highly expresses 5-HT2A receptors and provides glutamatergic inputs to arguably all areas of the cerebral cortex. We therefore tested the hypothesis that psilocybin modulates claustrum function in humans. Fifteen healthy participants (10M, 5F) completed this within-subjects study in which whole-brain resting-state blood-oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) signal was measured 100 min after blinded oral administration of placebo and 10 mg/70 kg psilocybin. Left and right claustrum signal was isolated using small region confound correction. Psilocybin significantly decreased both the amplitude of low frequency fluctuations as well as the variance of BOLD signal in the left and right claustrum. Psilocybin also significantly decreased functional connectivity of the right claustrum with auditory and default mode networks (DMN), increased right claustrum connectivity with the fronto-parietal task control network (FPTC), and decreased left claustrum connectivity with the FPTC. DMN integrity was associated with right-claustrum connectivity with the DMN, while FPTC integrity and modularity were associated with right claustrum and left claustrum connectivity with the FPTC, respectively. Subjective effects of psilocybin predicted changes in the amplitude of low frequency fluctuations and the variance of BOLD signal in the left and right claustrum. Observed effects were specific to claustrum, compared to flanking regions of interest (the left and right insula and putamen). This study uses a pharmacological intervention to provide the first empirical evidence in any species for a significant role of 5-HT2A receptor signaling in claustrum functioning, and supports a possible role of the claustrum in the subjective and therapeutic effects of psilocybin.

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