How Magic Mushrooms Might Dissolve the Ego Revealed

A first-of-its-kind study has cast new light on biological mechanisms that may play an important role in the "ego dissolution" experienced by people under the influence of the powerful psychedelic substance psilocybin.

Like other psychedelics, psilocybin—which is found in hallucinogenic mushrooms—can induce profoundly altered states of consciousness, including a phenomenon known as "ego-death, -loss or -dissolution" where one's normal subjective experience of oneself melts away.

Evidence is emerging that an important neurotransmitter in the brain known as glutamate may play a role in the hallucinogenic effects of psychedelic substances, such as psilocybin. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transmit signals throughout the brain and nervous system.

However, the activity of the glutamate system when it comes to the action of psilocybin on the brain and behavior of tripping individuals has never actually been tested in humans.

To address this gap in our knowledge, a team led by researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to examine what happens to a person's glutamate levels when they are under the influence of psilocybin.

"The study of drug-induced altered states of consciousness offers a way to systematically investigate brain changes that may influence the self," Johannes Ramaekers, an author of the study from Maastricht's Department of Neuropsychology and Psychopharmacology, told Newsweek.

"Psychedelic drugs have been found to offer a unique 'window' into the [mind] inducing transient and dose-dependent distortions in the subjective experience of one's self. By utilizing them as tools to alter normal waking consciousness, we can further study the neurochemical underpinnings of the altered, as well as the baseline, state," he said.

For their research, the scientists monitored the brains of 60 participants using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), finding significant alterations in glutamate that could be linked to experiences of ego death in the individuals involved.

According to a study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, they found higher levels of glutamate in an area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, which were associated with negative experiences of ego dissolution.

Meanwhile, they observed lower levels of glutamate in another region in the brain called the hippocampus, which were associated with positive experiences of ego dissolution.

magic mushrooms
Stock image: A group of magic mushrooms iStock

The prefrontal cortex is thought to be responsible for planning complex behavior, personality expression, decision-making and moderating social behavior, while the hippocampus is involved in the formation of memories and has been linked to one's sense of self-esteem, according to The Science of Psychotherapy.

"Our first main finding was that psilocybin changed levels of glutamate in key areas of the brain. This is important from a neuropsychopharmacological perspective, as it has been hypothesized—but never shown in humans—that this neurotransmitter plays a role in drug effects. Historically effects have been linked only to serotonin," Ramaekers said.

"The surprising finding was that psilocybin-induced changes in this chemical, glutamate, predicted the subjective experience of sense of self. We saw that different brain regions corresponded with the different types of ego dissolution, giving us more insight into how these drugs are affecting certain brain regions, and how this can modulate a person's experience of their sense of self."

The researchers defined negatively experienced ego dissolution as the feeling of anxiety or lack of control that an individual can experience while 'losing' their sense of self. Meanwhile, they defined positively experienced ego dissolution as the bliss or sense of 'oneness' that users of psychedelics often report.

The finding that psilocybin changed levels of glutamate in key areas of the brain is significant, Ramaekers said, because researchers have hypothesized that psychedelic-induced increases in this chemical can trigger processes in the brain that support neurogenesis, or the birth of new neurons.

Evidence suggests that impaired neurogenesis in some brain regions is associated with various mental disorders, including major depression, schizophrenia, mood, and anxiety disorders as well as addictive behaviors, according to a study published in the journal Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology.

It is still not clear how exactly how changes in glutamate levels in the brain could lead to the dissolution of the ego. However, previous research has suggested that psychedelics affect certain regions of the brain in such a way that the individual temporarily loses access to autobiographical information, resulting in a breakdown of one's personal identity.

"Our data add to this hypothesis, suggesting that modulations of hippocampal glutamate in particular may be a key mediator in the decoupling underlying feelings of (positive) ego dissolution," the authors wrote in the study.

With growing interest in psychedelics as therapies for various mental disorders, such as depression, addiction, anxiety and PTSD, the latest results could have significant implications.

"Distortions of self-experience are a critical symptom of these disorders, and accumulating evidence is showing that the therapeutic efficacy of psychedelics is strongly associated with the level of self-consciousness during treatment. Hence the present study adds to our understanding of the biological mechanism that predicts the therapeutic efficacy of psychedelics," Ramaekers said.

"Such findings provide further insights into the underlying neurobiological mechanisms of the psychedelic state, and importantly, provide a neurochemical basis for how these substances alter individuals' sense of self, and may be giving rise to therapeutic effects witnessed in ongoing clinical trials the authors wrote," the authors wrote in the study.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Johannes Ramaekers.

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