Researchers out of Cornell University found that LSD and psilocybin may reduce the energy your brain needs to switch between states of consciousness and cognition. This effect might explain why some people feel relief from depression or anxiety following a psychedelic experience.
Classical psychedelics work by activating serotonin 5-HT2a receptors. More study is needed, but Singleton et al. identified that LSD and psilocybin’s activity at these receptors may reduce the energy required to switch between brain states.1
Even though your brain represents only two percent of your body weight, it uses 20 percent of your energy—at rest. That means any action your brain takes is expensive in terms of energy resources. 2
So, your brain has to make every action count, and efficiency is key to keeping everything running smoothly. The authors note that switching between brain states burns through a surge of energy. If your brain is prioritizing other functions, changing brain states might have to take a back seat.
Think of it in terms of a foot race. Is it easier to run a 100-meter sprint, or a 100-meter sprint with hurdles? In this study, LSD and psilocybin removed the hurdles, leaving a wide open lane.
Implications for Mental Health Therapies
Mental states aren’t exactly brain states. For example, you might describe a person as in a state of worry, problem-solving, calm, or high alert. Think of brain states as more material things that can be measured, such as brain wave frequencies or active brain regions. While they’re not the same thing, mental states are able to change brain states—and brain states can change your mental state. 3
If you feel anxious, could altering your brain state help you calm down? If you’re depressed, can an altered state of consciousness help shift the way you feel? It’s possible, and this study adds to the body of evidence that suggests psychedelics such as psilocybin could have antidepressant effects.4,5
However, psychedelics alone are not a replacement for mental health therapy. These substances are unpredictable. After taking psychedelics, you can go from a state of fear to a state of calm, or you can start out cool and confident and spiral into intense anxiety. That’s why it’s important to know what you’re getting into, have a trip sitter close by to help you through challenging times, and plan on integrating your experiences afterward.
There’s a lot to consider before LSD and psilocybin become legitimate medical therapies, and it’s a convoluted path from research to practice. This study may lead to more research that helps us understand the properties of these drugs, what they do across populations, and how they may be used in a therapeutic setting.
1. Singleton SP, Luppi AI, Carhart-Harris RL, et al. Receptor-informed network control theory links LSD and psilocybin to a flattening of the brain’s control energy landscape. Nat Commun. 2022;13(1):5812. doi:10.1038/s41467-022-33578-1
3. Oosterwijk S, Lindquist KA, Anderson E, Dautoff R, Moriguchi Y, Barrett LF. States of mind: emotions, body feelings, and thoughts share distributed neural networks. Neuroimage. 2012;62(3):2110-2128. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.05.079
5. Barrett FS, Doss MK, Sepeda ND, Pekar JJ, Griffiths RR. Emotions and brain function are altered up to one month after a single high dose of psilocybin. Sci Rep. 2020;10(1):2214. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-59282-y