Although social rejection is painful for anyone, people with mental health disorders often have a much stronger reaction to this type of exclusion compared to healthy persons. This added stress can negatively affect the development and treatment of many psychiatric disorders.
Further, the increased reactivity to social exclusion and social pain can increase the risk of patients withdrawing from social life and therefore experiencing less support.
Now researchers at the University of Zurich have found that a small amount of psilocybin changes the brain’s way of processing social conflicts, and as a result, participants experienced social exclusion and rejection to be less stressful. Psilocybin is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
Current therapeutic approaches have fallen short when it comes to treating social problems in psychiatric patients, in particular because up until now little has been known about the neuropharmacological mechanisms underlying these brain processes.
In the new study, researchers found that psilocybin stimulates specific receptors of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This resulted in a less severe reaction to social rejection in the associated brain areas.
Consequently, participants felt less excluded after psilocybin administration than after the intake of a placebo. They also reported having experienced less social pain.
“Increased activity in brain areas such as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is associated with an increased experience of social pain. This has been shown to be present in different psychiatric disorders. Psilocybin seems to influence these particular brain areas,” said Dr. Katrin Preller, first author of the study.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate these processes. Adding to this a second imaging technique, known as magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), they additionally showed that another metabolite is involved in the experience of social pain: aspartate.
“These new results could be groundbreaking for the illumination of the neuropharmacological mechanisms of social interaction and may help to develop new treatments,” said Dr. Franz Vollenweider, director of the Neuropsychopharmacology and Brain Imaging Unit.
The new findings help researchers in multiple ways. First, they can help scientists develop more effective medications to treat psychiatric disorders characterized by an increased reactivity to social rejection, such as depression or borderline personality disorder.
“On the other hand,” Vollenweider adds, “the reduction of psychological pain and fear can facilitate the therapist-patient relationship and therefore the psychotherapeutic treatment of formative negative social experiences.”