An interesting study came out in 2014 that caught my eye. I had heard ramblings about it on various podcasts and in a few articles, but I had never seen it. Not too long ago, I finally stumbled upon the research and the details of what they found amazed me.
The Traumatized Mice
In a nutshell, researchers sprayed a citrus scent around mice which would be followed by a shock to their feet. This was repeated over, and over, and over. The poor mice were traumatized. Through classical conditioning, they would begin to scramble around their cage every time they smelled that horrifying citrus scent in anticipation of their little feet being shocked .
However, these weren’t just mad scientists torturing mice; they had a clear goal and acquired some astounding results from this. The traumatized mice were allowed to breed and they had healthy litters of baby mice. This new generation of mice didn’t have the lives of ordinary mice, though. When the citrus scent of doom returned, the new generation began to panic .
The Passing Down of Memory?
It seemed as if their parents’ memory of being shocked when exposed to citrus was ‘passed’ down to the next generation. ‘What about the second generation?’, you may ask. Well, they seemed to be quite afraid of the citrus smell as well. At this point, you may be wondering how this is going to relate to human brains. That is exactly what I was wondering too. What if our parents’ traumatic experience could influence how we react to our own traumatic experiences?
To satisfy our curiosity, a few groups of researchers have investigated this and a review by Youssef and colleagues summed it up well. It is well known that our environment can change how our DNA is expressed and it can also go as far as to alter the DNA itself. This is called epigenetics: alterations from the environment to our DNA that don’t mutate the sequence but make other modifications that can change how our bodies interpret our DNA.
The Link Between PTSD and DNA Modifications
Interestingly, it is already known that trauma and PTSD can make these epigenetic changes to DNA. More specifically, researchers have studied the relationship between modifications made to the mother’s DNA from trauma and how these changes are passed along to offspring. Before this type of research came about, it was largely assumed that PTSD strictly arose from the environment.
However, this didn’t make sense since roughly 50-85% of Americans will experience a ‘traumatic’ experience within their lifetime, but only 8% go on to develop PTSD. What causes this difference? The answer is obvious: people handle trauma differently.
This could largely be due to how someone was raised and what they’ve experienced that would allow them to manage the trauma, but new research shows that it could be genetic as well. Moreover, this research shows that the genetic component may be partially based on the traumatic experiences of your parents.
Could Epigenetic Changes to DNA From Trauma Be Passed Down?
One example of this was a study done among mothers who endured the Tutsi genocide in the 1990’s. The researchers found that both the mothers and their children born after the event had significantly higher levels of depression and PTSD when compared to the control. After genetic testing of the mothers and children, the researchers stated that this could be due to modifications made to the mother’s DNA during the traumatic event that had been passed on to their offspring.
“available literature in humans suggests that children of parents who had suffered from extreme trauma have methylation modifications associated with trauma and PTSD”
Another example is among a Congo population that went through a particularly stressful time. There was found to be a significant correlation between the stress of the mothers and DNA changes in their babies that were born after the traumatic times. Even more, the DNA changes inherited by the babies could also make it harder for their bodies to properly use certain segments of DNA which could lead to further mental and physical harm.
What This Means For Us
From the few studies covered by the review, it seems like it may be possible that humans can inherit changes to mother’s DNA from PTSD. What isn’t known is if these changes are benign or if we respond like the mice who clearly were afraid of the citrus smell because of what their parents experienced. In order to get a clearer view of what is going on, much more in-depth research needs to be done on this subject.
Even with just preliminary studies, it does give possible insight into one’s own situation and how they handle traumatic experiences. Do you know of a traumatic experience your mother had before you were born? It’s possible your mother wasn’t the only one affected, but you as well. Either way, you can overcome PTSD with proper psychotherapy techniques (like many we have written about in our mental health section), but now you may have learned a bit more about yourself along the way.
What have you heard on this topic? Have anything to add?
The legal classification of psychedelic substances has created controversy for decades, cost trillions of dollars, and countless lives, but with recent scientific advancements, controversy has expanded. Researchers have been discovering incredibly beneficial effects provoked by the use of substances such as psilocybin, MDMA, DMT, and LSD. At the same time, government legal classifications all over the world describe many psychedelics as having no benefits and opponents of legalization claim these substances can be dangerous.
While the controversial arguments continue to keep psychedelic drugs illegal in vast areas of the world, every year researchers are discovering more therapeutic benefits from several different psychedelics. Silicon Valley is a hotspot in the midst of controversy. People ranging from company CEO’s to young tech professionals are claiming that micro-dosing psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD, and mescaline allows them to work smarter and more creatively. (Barbar Sahakian, Camilla D’Angelo & George Savulich, 2017). The current legal classification of psychedelic substances, many being schedule 1 drugs, makes it almost impossible to fund continuous research. Proponents of legalizing or reclassifying psychedelic substances argue that they have the potential to bring about significant medicinal value and the systematic scheduling of drugs limits modern medicine. Opponents of legalizing psychedelics believe that the substances possess psychological dangers. But, do these dangers outweigh benefits?
Researchers from the EmmaSofia organization in Oslo, Norway claim that psychedelics are no more dangerous than common activities including playing soccer or riding a bike (Krebs, 2015).
The Literature Review
A psychedelic substance is defined by its ability to induce heightened states of awareness and induce altered states of perception. The use of psychedelics throughout human history has been commonplace. To further interpret the controversy of psychedelic drugs in today’s society, a concise review of relevant literature will follow. This review will begin with the relevant literature, which describes the potential beneficial and therapeutic effects of psychedelic substances as outweighing the consequential effects. Furthermore, the position of those with the belief that psychedelic substances should remain illegal in regards to no medicinal value will be subsequent.
The Argument Against Current Classification
Lately, researchers studying the effects of psychedelic substances have made tremendous advancements. But, in many countries psychedelic substances are classified as schedule one or schedule two drugs regarded as having no therapeutic benefits as well as a high potential for abuse. For example, LSD and Peyote are classified as schedule 1 drugs by the U.S. government, while drugs such as Cocaine and Methamphetamine are classified as schedule two. This kind of classification systematically creates immense obstacles when it comes to funding research into psychedelic substances, making it nearly impossible (Rucker, 2015). Researchers all over the world agree if we are to better understand the potential benefits of psychedelics than they need to be reclassified. This pertains to governments all across the globe including the U.S. and U.K. If we are to take advantage of the therapeutic benefits psychedelics may possess, the first step would be addressing the current literature and rescheduling psychedelic substances to instigate research.
The Argument In Favor Of Legalization On The Basis Of Therapeutic Benefits
One of the main arguments in favor of legalizing psychedelic substances focuses on the safety of these substances, and many scientists claim they are safer than we’ve been previously told. Researchers have been conducting studies administering psychedelic substances to patients in clinical contexts with promising results. For example, researchers at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center administered moderate doses of psilocybin to patients with OCD four times, at least a week apart, patients who had previously failed drug therapy. The results yielded dramatic improvements in the patients OCD symptoms as measured using the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale (Y-BOCS) with no safety concerns (Kirn, 2007).
Moreover, using the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, 60% were determined to have had a full mystical experience. 70% rated the experience as among the top five meaningful experiences of their lives, ranking it on par with the birth of a child or a parent’s death. And 80% said it changed their sense of worth or satisfaction positively. All of this from taking a mushroom?
The therapeutic benefits of psychedelics are not limited to psilocybin. Researchers studying the effects of MDMA on patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder are also finding promising results. Several studies have suggested that MDMA assisted psychotherapy relieves PTSD. In one particular study Belmont, MA-based Rick Doblin, Ph.D. administered MDMA to twelve subjects during two psycho-assisted therapy sessions 3-5 weeks apart. Eight people received the placebo. At the end of the study, 80 percent of the trial group no longer met the requirements of PTSD stipulated by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV-TR). While only 25 percent of the control group showed improvements with PTSD symptoms (2010). Considerable amounts of studies are showing similar therapeutic benefits from a whole range of psychedelic substances. These benefits have the ability to cut healthcare costs and open patients up to new and improved medicine researchers claim.
The Argument Against Legalization
Many people believe that certain drugs are illegal due to the physical dangers they possess to the user. This is not always the case. However, in regards to psychedelic substances, there may be psychological risks. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the long-term effects of psychedelics and hallucinogens include persistent psychosis including symptoms of disorganized thinking, paranoia and mood changes (2016). Research has also shown that psychotic-like symptoms can occur in those who have a history of unstable mental illness.
The NIDA also states “Marked psychological distress, including feelings of extreme panic, fear, anxiety, paranoia, invulnerability, exaggerated strength, and aggression” can occur as a result of higher doses with psychedelics (2016). The most common concerns about psychedelics cater to the safety of the drugs. Because psychedelics cause chemical changes to the brain that may result in emotional or physiological damage, they are considered dangerous. According to researchers at Washington University, the psychedelic substance known as LSD produced profound changes in the blood flow to the brain, electrical activity, communication patterns and alters our brains conscious patterns (Carhart-Harris, et al., 2015). While plenty of legal drugs interact with the chemical balance of the brain, the profound patterns in which psychedelic drugs affect consciousness scare people.
It’s important to note that while the notion of changing our brain’s chemistry and consciousness is perceived as dangerous and therefore used as an argument against legalization, many researchers who yield these results are further intrigued. “This uniquely comprehensive examination of the LSD state represents an important advance in scientific research with psychedelic drugs at a time of growing interest in their scientific and therapeutic value” (Carhart-Harris, et al., 2015). Therefore, it may be beneficial to open up to these substances without a preconceived notion of fear. Similiar methods of changing our brain chemistry have been seen with long-term meditation.
Researchers Believe Keeping Psychedelics Illegal Makes Almost No Sense
Researchers at Johns Hopkins conducted a study in which 15 participants, who on average smoked 19 cigarettes a day for 31 days, were given a psilocybin in two subsequent sessions. After a 6 month follow-up, the success rate for smoking cessation was 80 percent.
The systematic scheduling of drugs in the United States is arbitrary, which leads to a discriminative social injustice according to many. Some psychedelic substances such as Psilocybin are schedule 1 drugs, while alcohol and nicotine are legal. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) both alcohol and nicotine are proven to be harmful and addictive (2017). Conversely, Psychedelic substances have not been proven to be addictive. This equates to discrimination against someone who may prefer the effects of psilocybin to nicotine, even under the science that indicates nicotine and alcohol have a higher potential for abuse. Unfortunately, many political factors come into play regarding the legal status of drugs. Industries such as pharmaceutical, tobacco, and alcohol harbor the most money and have an influence on the legality of drugs whether they are safe or not. While legalizing psychedelic substances would most likely cut into profits for these large industries they would bring about economic benefits as well.
Legalizing psychedelic substances could have significant economic advantages over keeping the substances illegal. The current legality surrounding psychedelics creates an unsafe black market; instead, the market for psychedelics could be taxed and safely regulated by legalizing these substances. For example, the state of Colorado has made over 500 million dollars in tax revenue from recreationally legalizing marijuana between 2014 and May of 2017 (Newman, 2017). That’s 500 million dollars going to k-12 education, transportation development and construction projects instead of street dealers. Not only would legalizing psychedelics have the potential to bring in tax revenue, but also regulating the market would create safer products. While most psychedelics are nearly impossible to overdose on, getting the wrong substance as a result of buying off the street could present dangers and even land you in the hospital. Therefore, legalizing psychedelics would potentially cut hospital costs, create tax revenue, and create a more stable and safe market.
When used in the right context, almost all psychedelic substances have been shown to be safe, especially under clinical supervision. While psychedelics can create a profound sense of distortion from reality, urging the importance of putting yourself in the right setting with the right people, there is little evidence that links psychedelics to toxic effects on the brain or body. So much so that researchers from the EmmaSofia organization in Oslo, Norway claim that psychedelics are no more dangerous than common activities including playing soccer or riding a bike (Krebs, 2015). Psychedelic substances are known for altering your perception of reality, which could be dangerous if you’re somewhere that presents physical risks, but research suggests the psychedelics themselves do no damage physically. Not only are the psychedelics safe but they also provide therapeutic benefits.
The most fascinating aspect of psychedelics may be the immense amount of therapeutic potential they possess. Various psychedelics including but not limited to LSD, Psilocybin, DMT, and MDMA have already shown clinical evidence of benefiting people with all sorts of disorders. Researchers at Johns Hopkins conducted a study in which 15 participants, who on average smoked 19 cigarettes a day for 31 days, were given a psilocybin in two subsequent sessions. After a 6 month follow-up, the success rate for smoking cessation was 80 percent. The approximate 6-month success rate for the most effective smoking cessation drug on the market, Varenicline, is 35 percent. The study suggests Psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, plays an important role in restructuring our addictive behavior patterns.
Research has unveiled the bountiful and beneficial effects of psychedelic compounds yet they remain illegal. Millions of people throughout the United States suffer from PTSD, anxiety, depression, OCD and other grave illnesses. Currently, prescription medications only fill the void with covering up the symptoms temporarily. Psychedelics may very well be the answer. Research into the beneficial effects of psychedelics is nothing short of astounding. Researchers believe if we were to legalize certain psychedelic compounds, even solely for therapeutic purposes, we would be contributing to advancing medical innovation instead of halting it.