According to a systematic review that was reported in Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, psychedelic drugs such as LSD and mescaline decrease the recognition of negative facial expressions. Generally, the main facial expressions characterizing basic human emotions are happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, fear and anger. The psychedelic substances do this by adjusting the amygdala’s activity, which is the region of the brain that drives a person’s flight or fight response.
A postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sao Paulo, Rafael Guimarães dos Santos, who is the study’s author, explained that they’d been looking into the effects of ayahuasca on humans for the past decade and a half. They discovered that its effects, as well as those of other serotonergic hallucinogens like psilocybin and LSD, involve changes in emotional processing.
The researchers explored 5 prior studies on psilocybin and 2 prior studies on LSD. All 7 experimental studies assessed facial expression recognition.
In the review, the researchers explained that the most consistent finding was that both psilocybin and LSD reduce negative emotions recognition and modified the amygdala’s activity to these stimuli. While this effect corresponded with anti-depressive effects in patients who are depressed, it was difficult to make a conclusion on whether this result had any clinical relevance, given that this had been observed in one study with an open-label design.
Prior research had also shown that people who suffered from depression and anxiety disorders usually have a bias in favor of negative facial emotion recognition. In theory, the reduction of negative facial emotion recognition may help treat these conditions.
Santos stated in an interview that changing emotional processing through adjusting recognition of facial emotions could be among the mechanisms involved in ayahuasca and other serotonergic hallucinogens’ therapeutic potential.
The researchers also observed in the review that the studies that had been reviewed demonstrated that one dose or a few doses of psilocybin or LSD were associated with an altered pattern of negative emotion recognition that may be interpreted as beneficial. This is because several of these studies showed that these moderations correlated with increases in antidepressant effects and/or anxiolytic and positive mood.
Santos noted that despite this, his team of researchers was only able to find a few studies on the topic, whose sample sizes were small. Excluding Santos, the team of researchers included Jaime E. C. Hallak, Giordano N. Rossi, José Carlos Bouso, José Alexandre S. Crippa, Flávia L. Osório and Juliana M. Rocha.
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