Psilocybin Can Decrease the Pain of Social Exclusion

Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, may one day be used to help treat the pain of social exclusion. Magic mushrooms, shown here, were banned in the Netherlands in 2008. Jerry Lampen/REUTERS

It hurts to be left out, but for most people, social exclusion doesn't become pathological. For people with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, though, it can be a huge problem, worsening symptoms and creating a feedback loop of negativity.

Enter psilocybin, the active ingredient in "magic" mushrooms. A small new study with healthy volunteers shows that a low dose of psilocybin can reduce the distress caused by mild social exclusion and lessens activity in the area of the brain associated with this emotion.

"Usually, social exclusion and isolation is perceived as extremely stressful and painful," says Katrin Preller, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich and the first author of a study describing the findings published April 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Psilocybin now seems to reduce this emotional response to social exclusion by attenuating activity in associated brain areas," thus making the experience "less emotionally painful for the participants."

In the study, 21 participants played a computer game with two other virtual people (who they thought were real). Gradually, the other two "people" began to interact only with each other, leaving out the participant. Each participant took the test twice: one time, they were given a low dose of psilocybin afterward, and the second time they got a placebo. When the study subjects received psilocybin, they reported feeling significantly less excluded, even though they remained equally aware in each instance that they have been left out by other players, Preller says.

The study participants also underwent scanning in an MRI machine, which shows activity in the brain. When they took psilocybin, there was less activity in parts of their anterior cingulate cortex; research has linked activation in these areas with experiences of fear and anxiety, emotional distress and social "pain" (caused by isolation and exclusion).

Preller says that psilocybin stimulates two different receptors normally acted upon by the neurotransmitter serotonin. Although it's not clear exactly how, scientists believe this may help parts of the brain that don't usually communicate with each other start to talk, and it appears to reduce activity in areas of the brain that may be overactive due to depression and anxiety.

Moreover, psilocybin (like other some other psychedelics, such as LSD) has been shown to increase subjective feelings of connection with the environment and other people, which may lead to stronger and more empathetic connections between people. This in turn may help reduce "egocentric bias" and "render negative experiences more bearable," the authors of the study wrote.

It should be noted that this research has been carried out under carefully controlled settings, in an environment where those taking the drug established a trusting relationship with the doctors or researchers, and were under full medical supervision, Preller says. Using such a drug in an uncontrolled setting is not something she advocates.

"Recent research has shown that psilocybin can be extraordinarily effective in treating depression and anxiety in certain patients, so there's reason to believe [the treatment of social exclusion] would also be a potential use," says George Greer, medical director of the Heffter Research Institute, which helped fund the study. (Greer himself was not involved in the research.)

However, these findings are "very preliminary" and "much more definitive research with patients and Food and Drug Administration approval would be necessary before psilocybin could be prescribed for this purpose," Greer adds. But he says he does envision the drug eventually being used to this end.