Study Finds Psilocybin Eases the Stress of MRIs

Researchers in Australia are studying how psilocybin, the primary psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms, affects healthy subjects undergoing an MRI. The ongoing study is finding that psilocybin can make the MRI process less stressful or even enjoyable, with at least one of the participants describing the experience as “magical.”

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a process that uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to create noninvasive images of the body, its organs, and biological functions. Images created through MRI can provide healthcare professionals with a wealth of data about their patients, but the confining space and loud noises of an MRI machine can cause discomfort and anxiety for many people who undergo the procedure. MRI manufacturers have responded by making more patient-friendly machines, but being subjected to an MRI scan can still be an unwelcome and stressful experience for many patients.

To address the issue, researchers at the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health at Monash University in Australia are conducting a study to investigate how psilocybin affects participants during an MRI scan of 60 healthy participants. Dubbed PsiConnect, the research is the first of its kind in Australia and is one of the world’s largest psychedelic trials to use brain imaging technology, according to the researchers. In 2021, the Australian government announced it would provide $15 million in funding to investigate the potential use of psychedelics to augment psychotherapy.

“Finding people was hard because we wanted people who had never taken this drug before and don’t have any mental health history, even in their first-degree relatives,” Adeel Razi, a neuroscientist from the Monash Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health and the lead researcher for the study, told the Sydney Morning Herald

Study participant Michael Taylor fit the bill perfectly. In his late 40s, he was healthy and had never used drugs recreationally.

“I hadn’t been that kind of person, you know,” said Taylor. “I’ve never even smoked a cigarette in my life.”

Study Participants Receive Small Dose Of Psilocybin

To conduct the study, the participants will undergo an MRI examination both before and after taking a small, sub-therapeutic dose (19 milligrams) of synthetic psilocybin. Researchers will then use the images produced during the MRI to assess any potential changes in activity after the administration of the psychedelic drug. The researchers hope that the information gleaned from the imaging combined with data from other evaluations will provide information that can be used to develop new drugs and therapies to more effectively treat mental illnesses. 

“I can look at how the brain is reacting to these compounds, and that gives me a window into understanding consciousness,” said Razi. “We need to have the evidence base of how it actually works in a brain without depression, and then the insights that we get, we can translate into use in a clinical setting.”

After he had been administered psilocybin and was put in the MRI machine, Taylor said that the loud, clanking noises created by the imaging were anything but distressing.

“It was the most magical music that I have ever heard,” said Taylor.

Taylor remembers the music rising to a crescendo like a wave, which eventually broke over him and flooded him with joy.

“I felt myself smiling, laughing; I’m sure I giggled at one point,” he said. “I was thinking: ‘I can’t believe this is happening. Why don’t more people get to experience this?’”

As the imaging process progressed, Taylor says that he lost all sense of self.

“I actually felt myself melding with the MRI machine and becoming one with it,” Taylor remembers. “Which is crazy – but that’s what it was like, I was just part of everything else around me. I was everything. And everything was me.”

About 60% of the participants said that the experience with psilocybin was one of the most meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives. Among those who did not find the experience spiritually significant or meaningful, slightly less than half still said it was one of the most interesting or amazing experiences of their lives. About 10% of the participants said that they did not experience much of an effect from the psilocybin and about 5% said that they experienced unpleasant effects. Razi said that the initial findings of the research will be published in about six months.

“We will make all the imaging data and behavioral data open access,” he said. “It is one of the largest studies in the world, and anyone will be able to analyze the data, so it will have a long-lasting legacy.”

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