In a new Swiss study, researchers from the University Hospital of Psychiatry Zurich investigated the effects of combining mindfulness meditation and psilocybin, the active ingredient found in “magic mushrooms.”
They found that mindfulness meditation enhanced the positive long-term effects of a single dose of psilocybin, while counteracting any potential dysphoric responses to the psychedelic experience.
Their findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.
A growing body of evidence suggests that psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin, may be effective at treating a variety of psychological disorders, including depression and anxiety, and could one day be prescribed to patients.
Hallucinogens such as LSD or psilocybin alter the perception of those who take them. Experiences of self-transcendence and reduced self-focus are similar to those brought about by mindfulness meditation. Both can ease stress, prompt feelings of enduring happiness and increase empathy and altruism.
In contrast, exaggerated self-focus, repetitive negative thoughts and emotions about one’s self, and impaired social interactions are primary features of psychiatric disorders such as depression.
For the study, the scientists recruited 40 meditation experts who were participating in a five-day mindfulness retreat. In the double-blind study, the experts were administered either a single dose of psilocybin or a placebo on the fourth day of the group retreat.
Using a variety of measurements, the researchers were able to show that mindfulness meditation increased the positive effects of psilocybin, while counteracting potential dysphoric responses to the psychedelic experience.
“Psilocybin markedly increased the incidence and intensity of self-transcendence virtually without inducing any anxiety compared to participants who received the placebo,” said first author and doctoral student Lukasz Smigielski, who conducted the study under the direction of UZH professor of psychiatry Dr. Franz Vollenweider.
At the four-month follow-up, the meditation experts who had been given psilocybin demonstrated more positive changes in psychosocial functioning, better self-acceptance and more empathy than the placebo control group.
According to Vollenweider, the intensity of self-transcendence experienced during the retreat played a key role for these enduring changes. In a previous study, he and his team used magnetic resonance imaging to demonstrate that experiences of self-transcendence can lead to lasting changes to neural connections in the brain, and more specifically in the regions that are active when we think about ourselves.
The team found that besides meditation depth, the participants’ openness and optimism were correlated to a positive response to psilocybin.
“These factors can help us predict a positive response,” said Vollenweider. At the same time, skills that are trained during mindfulness meditation such as regulating one’s attention and reappraising emotions seem to buffer potential negative reactions to psilocybin.
“Our findings shed light on the interplay between pharmacological and extra-pharmacological factors in psychedelic states of mind,” said Vollenweider.
“They indicate that mindfulness training enhances the positive effects of a single dose of psilocybin, and can increase empathy and permanently reduce ego-centricity. This opens up new therapeutic avenues, for example for the treatment of depression, which is often accompanied by increased self-focus and social deficits.”
Source: University of Zurich