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Implications for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: functional magnetic resonance imaging study with psilocybin

  • R. L. Carhart-Harris (a1), R. Leech (a2), T. M. Williams (a3), D. Erritzoe (a4), N. Abbasi (a3), T. Bargiotas (a5), P. Hobden (a6), D. J. Sharp (a2), J. Evans (a6), A. Feilding (a7), R. G. Wise (a6) and D. J. Nutt (a8)...
Abstract
Background

Psilocybin is a classic psychedelic drug that has a history of use in psychotherapy. One of the rationales for its use was that it aids emotional insight by lowering psychological defences.

Aims

To test the hypothesis that psilocybin facilitates access to personal memories and emotions by comparing subjective and neural responses to positive autobiographical memories under psilocybin and placebo.

Method

Ten healthy participants received two functional magnetic resonance imaging scans (2mg intravenous psilocybin v. intravenous saline), separated by approximately 7 days, during which they viewed two different sets of 15 positive autobiographical memory cues. Participants viewed each cue for 6 s and then closed their eyes for 16 s and imagined re-experiencing the event. Activations during this recollection period were compared with an equivalent period of eyes-closed rest. We split the recollection period into an early phase (first 8 s) and a late phase (last 8 s) for analysis.

Results

Robust activations to the memories were seen in limbic and striatal regions in the early phase and the medial prefrontal cortex in the late phase in both conditions (P<0.001, whole brain cluster correction), but there were additional visual and other sensory cortical activations in the late phase under psilocybin that were absent under placebo. Ratings of memory vividness and visual imagery were significantly higher after psilocybin (P<0.05) and there was a significant positive correlation between vividness and subjective wellbeing at follow-up (P<0.01).

Conclusions

Evidence that psilocybin enhances autobiographical recollection implies that it may be useful in psychotherapy either as a tool to facilitate the recall of salient memories or to reverse negative cognitive biases.

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Copyright
Corresponding author
R. L. Carhart-Harris, Imperial College London, Neuropsychopharmacology Unit, 5th Floor, Burlington Danes Building, 160 Du Cane Road, London W12 0NN, UK. Email: r.carhart-harris@imperial.ac.uk
Footnotes
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This study received financial and intellectual support from the Beckley Foundation and financial support from the Neuropsychoanalysis Foundation, Multidisplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and Heffter Research Institute.

Declaration of interest

None.

Footnotes
References
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Implications for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: functional magnetic resonance imaging study with psilocybin

  • R. L. Carhart-Harris (a1), R. Leech (a2), T. M. Williams (a3), D. Erritzoe (a4), N. Abbasi (a3), T. Bargiotas (a5), P. Hobden (a6), D. J. Sharp (a2), J. Evans (a6), A. Feilding (a7), R. G. Wise (a6) and D. J. Nutt (a8)...
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