Psychedelic drugs are mostly known for the effects they cause on the brain. Unfortunately, because many of these substances are not known to cause severe addiction syndromes in the way many other drugs do, users of psychedelics often believe they are safe from intense acute or long-term effects on the brain. On the contrary, drugs like psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, peyote, MDMA, and salvia divinorum can all cause a number of serious effects on the brain, some of which may linger long after you abuse the drug itself.
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What Areas of the Brain Do Psychedelic Drugs Affect?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Classic hallucinogens are thought to produce their perception-altering effects by acting on neural circuits in the brain that use the neurotransmitter serotonin.” This causes many of the desirable effects of the drugs as well as those that can cause an individual to experience an adverse reaction to the drug. “Specifically, some of their most prominent effects occur in the prefrontal cortex––an area involved in mood, cognition, and perception––as well as other regions important in regulating arousal and physiological responses to stress and panic.”
Psychedelic drugs affect many of the brain’s responses to outside stimuli as well as its ability to process emotions and thoughts. For these reasons, psychedelic drugs can be extremely dangerous, as they affect an individual’s entire thinking process. However, people still continue to abuse them, often specifically for these same effects. Though the acute effects of psychedelic drugs take some time to kick in after a person takes the substance (anywhere between 20 minutes and two hours, depending on the drug, dosage, and method of abuse), they can sometimes “last as long as 12 hours.”
Short-term Effects of Psychedelics on the Brain
Psychedelic drugs have a number of short-term effects on the brain, many of which are the reason an individual would choose to abuse them in he first place. Often, users take these drugs in order to experience
- Heightened senses like brighter colors and more intensified tastes
- Perceptual distortions like tactile, visual, and auditory hallucinations, colors, and shapes
- Synesthesia or a sense that one is hearing colors, seeing music, or otherwise experiencing something through a different sense than usual
- Detachment from the body
- Spiritual and religious experiences
- Feelings of oneness with the universe and one’s own environment
These hallucinations and perception alterations can last for several hours, something many users are not prepared for their first time taking these drugs. In some cases, even pleasant effects can become taxing after a while, but many individuals often experience negative effects on the brain as well. “Bad trips,” according to the NIDA, “include terrifying thoughts and nightmarish feelings of anxiety and despair that include fears of losing control, insanity, or death.” This can alter the entire experience, making it much more frightening than the individual initially expected, and in some cases, the frightening aspects can last with an individual far beyond their state of intoxication, becoming an issue that may even require therapy in certain cases.
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In addition, even a mild psychedelic drug trip can cause issues of tension, anxiety, and paranoia. The effects of psychedelic drugs on the brain are extremely unpredictable, and especially during the intoxication stage, there is no true way of knowing what the experience will be like. For example, LSD may cause “rapid emotional shifts that can range from fear to euphoria, with transitions so rapid that the user may seem to experience several emotions simultaneously.” Because of the unpredictable nature of the effects of these drugs, and the fact that a person’s mood, current environment, or a number of other factors can change them, there is no way to know what any particular psychedelic trip will be like, especially psychologically. In addition, long-term use of psychedelics takes a toll on the brain as well.
Long-term Effects of Psychedelics on the Brain
As stated previously, the hallucinations or frightening thoughts experienced during an adverse reaction to these drugs can stay with a person for a very long time and create a need for therapeutic treatment. But a person can also experience other issues associated with these drugs and their long-term abuse. According to the Center for Substance Abuse Research, the chronic use of drugs like PCP and LSD can cause flashbacks, or the reliving of hallucinations and other perceptions that an individual experienced during their high at a time when they are not intoxicated. These flashbacks can sometimes happen months or even years after the initial drug use.
According to the California Administrative Office of the Courts, “impaired memory and concentration” caused by the abuse of these drugs can sometimes become long-term, and an individual may never be able to use their mind to the same capacity in which they once did. However, these issues can often be even less severe than the psychosis, depression, and other mental disturbances that can be caused by drugs like MDMA and PCP. These two substances are some of the only psychedelics that actually cause severe addiction syndromes as well, which alters the brain severely and can fully impact an individual’s entire life. In addition, even those drugs that do not cause addiction can cause an intense tolerance to build up, which can also affect an individual psychologically.
Sometimes, the abuse of hallucinogenic drugs can cause a disorder called Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (or HPPD). Those who have it often display symptoms that can be mistaken for a neurological disorder and grapple with hallucinations as well as other visual disturbances. Though both this disorder and drug-induced psychosis are considered to be less common results of long-term psychedelic abuse, they can be more common than many individuals realize and may even occur together.
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Understanding How Psychedelics Affect the Brain
Psychedelic drugs will affect your brain in many ways, altering its ability to think, learn, perceive outside stimuli, and even to make judgments. Though many people enjoy the psychological effects these drugs can create, it is important to understand that not all of these effects are desirable and that the unpredictable nature of psychedelic drug abuse will likely take a toll on the brain, if not the first time than likely soon after if you are a regular abuser of these substances.