Scientists are increasingly hopeful that certain types of psychedelic drugs will one day be approved for medical purposes like treating depression and anxiety.
But what makes a psychedelic a psychedelic? How is it different from other drugs like cocaine or alcohol? And what makes a "trip" on one psychedelic — like acid, for example — distinct from a trip on another?
Here's a quick chart to put that into perspective:
(Business Insider/Mike Nudelman)
Exactly how psychedelics impact the brain is still somewhat of a mystery to scientists, but we're finding out more and more in recent years.
What we do know, however, is that psychedelics have a fundamentally different effect on the brain than addictive drugs like alcohol and cocaine do. Cocaine, for example, elicits a deep, euphoric sensation by temporarily flooding the brain's reward and motivation centers. In some people, this can trigger a cycle of reinforcement that traps them in addiction, even when the same amount of the drug no longer results in a characteristic "high." The psychedelic drug psilocybin, on the other hand (the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms), appears to fundamentally alter the infrastructure of the brain's prefrontal cortex and change how information in this area of the brain is exchanged.
This is one of the reasons that many scientists believe it's unreasonable to label psychedelics as "recreational" drugs — in the patients I've interviewed who've participated in clinical trials on psilocybin, the psychedelic trip itself sounds anything but recreational. In most cases, in fact, users describe feeling panicky, anxious, and afraid during the trip. It's what the drug appears to do to them after the trip itself that gives researchers hope. In many cases, patients describe lasting behavioral changes including improved relationships and increased optimism about life, for example.
Psilocybin isn't the only psychedelic drug that researchers are studying for its potentially therapeutic effects, however. They're also looking at LSD ("acid"), DMT (ayahuasca), and more. Each drug has a different trip length and varies in terms of its legality across the globe.
Methods for producing, brewing, and taking the drugs differ as well.
While magic mushrooms are typically either grown and eaten, brewed into tea, or ground up and taken in pill form, LSD is made synthetically and usually processed into strips that can be absorbed by placing them on the tongue.
Ayahuasca, on the other hand, is usually consumed as a beverage. It's brewed from the macerated and boiled vines of the Banisteriopsis caapi (yage) plant and the Psychotria viridis (chacruna) leaf, and it has been used for centuries as a traditional spiritual medicine in ceremonies among the indigenous peoples of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Ayahuasca's effects come from mixing the drug dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, from the chacruna plant, and the MAO inhibitor from the yage plant, which allows the DMT to be absorbed into the bloodstream.
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