Psychedelics can change the way a person feels, sees things and the way they think. Researchers have indicated that these psychoactive substances have the potential to be used as treatments for mental health issues. For instance, one study found that therapy sessions using psilocybin, a type of psychedelic, may provide long-term relief for mental distress caused by cancer. Another trial using LSD reported a decrease in anxiety among individuals with terminal illnesses.
These therapeutic benefits probably comes as no surprise to any occasional user of psychedelics. For the past few decades, psychedelics have been heavily stigmatized as being dangerous, illegal drugs. Public opinion is slowly starting to change after scientists have recently began studying their benefits again.
Scientific research into psychedelics came to a halt in the 1970’s after President Nixon of the US began the decades long, and still ongoing war on drugs. Use has since been forced underground.
Research was thriving in the 50’s and 60’s, but the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified psychedelics as Schedule I drugs, officially deeming them as having no medical benefit.
Although many barriers still hinder research, the tide is slowly changing and several institutions have been granted licenses for psychedelic research.
AI & Psychedelics
AI is helping the field of psychedelics in 2 distinct ways. Firstly, it’s helping discover molecules that provide the most benefit, without the risks. Secondly, it’s being used to map the brain to identify which areas of the brain are responsible for the therapeutic benefits.
Using AI to find the most therapeutic psychedelic molecules
Enveric Biosciences is a biotech company based in the United States that utilizes artificial intelligence to develop therapies for mental health and cancer. They use molecules derived from cannabinoids and psychedelics.
The CEO, Joseph Tucker, states that the extensive research on the human brain over the recent past has placed us in a favourable position for creating new therapies. He says that psychedelics, in particular, have been proven to have a significant effect on the brain.
Enveric’s main psychedelic compounds, which are currently in the early stages of development, aim to address mental distress caused by cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A large number of people with cancer also have a mental health disorder, and this can negatively affect the outcome of their cancer treatment, according to Tucker.
He believes that therapy for cancer-related distress using a psychedelic agent is one of the most promising areas where benefits can be observed. He also adds that PTSD is another area of high need, where a psychedelic with reduced visual and auditory hallucinations, could have a significant impact.
“AI is going to be essential in order to design completely new molecules,” Tucker said. “Without AI, it would take us another 20 years.”
Mapping the brain on psychedelic with AI
A study published in May 2022 highlights important findings relating to brain activity while experiencing the effects of psychedelics. Using AI, the team were able to map various regions of the brain responsible for the enhanced states psychedelic users often experience.
To understand the way these subjective experiences appear in the brain, an analysis was conducted on over 6,000 written accounts of psychedelic experiences.
The accounts were then transformed into a “bag-of-words” model, which breaks down a given text into individual words and counts how many times each word appears. They were then correlated the most frequently used words related to each psychedelic with receptors in the brain that are known to interact with the corresponding drug.
Using an algorithm, the most common subjective experiences associated with these word-receptor pairs were identified. Then they linked these experiences to specific brain regions by comparing them to the types of receptors present in each area.
They discovered new connections and patterns that support existing research findings. For instance, modifications in sensory perception were correlated with a specific serotonin receptor located in the visual cortex of the brain, which is responsible for binding to a molecule that controls mood and memory.
The experience of transcendence was found to be related to dopamine and opioid receptors in the salience network, a network of brain regions that is responsible for handling sensory and emotional input.
Additionally, auditory hallucinations were found to be related to several receptors distributed throughout the auditory cortex.
The future of AI research into psychedelics
As artificial intelligence models continue to become more sophisticated, they’ll become better at identifying patterns between human experience and psychedelics. By identifying the most beneficial molecules, as well as figuring out which areas of the brain are responsible for such feelings, AI will undoubtably become a crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to better understanding how and why psychedelics have such profound effects on users.
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