Each week, we read what's going on the world of science and bring the wildest findings straight to you. Here's the latest:
Microdosing mushrooms might make you more creative
When you take tiny amounts of psychedelics, like mushrooms or LSD, you won’t experience hallucinations or get particularly high. But anecdotally, people who microdose say that taking these drugs in this way can lead to better focus, more creativity, and even help with depression.
There’s been very little research done on microdosing, however, and the first studies on these substances are only just starting to roll out. The first placebo-controlled trial of microdosing LSD began in September of this year, and now a new study in Psychopharmacology looked at the effects of small amounts of mushrooms on different cognitive abilities.
36 people were given around .37 grams of dried truffles and given three tests: convergent thinking, coming up with a solution to a problem; divergent thinking, coming up with multiple solutions to a problem; and fluid intelligence, the ability to solve new problems, says Luisa Prochazkova, a PhD student at the Cognitive Psychology Unit at Leiden University and the first author of the study.
Convergent and divergent thinking are both thought to be important for creativity, and intelligence is important for analytical thinking. The researchers found that after microdosing both convergent and divergent thinking improved, but intelligence stayed the same.
Other studies have indicated that psychedelics might make you more creative, but it was intriguing that both convergent and divergent thinking improved, Prochazkova tells me. “Given that convergent and divergent thinking are commonly unrelated and affected by different factors, we were surprised by finding the same positive impact on both kinds of thinking,” she says. “We speculate, post hoc, that large doses of psychedelics might induce an ultra-flexible mode of brain functioning but a breakdown of more rational processes, while microdosing might drive brain functioning towards an optimal balance between persistence and flexibility.”
Besides just improving cognitive performance, increasing flexible thinking could one day help people with depression or OCD since both disorders suffer from rigid thought patterns. The current study wasn’t blinded, and there wasn’t a placebo group, so Prochazkova says more work needs to be done before we can prescribe microdosing to anyone.
But “one might speculate that creative occupations may benefit from microdosing, while this may not necessarily be the case for positions where analytical thinking and persistent focus is required,” she says. “However, this speculation first needs to be backed up by more rigorous placebo-controlled designs, which we are using in ongoing studies.”
Can we induce hibernation in humans?
Each year, when the weather gets colder and I wake up to a pitch-black bedroom, I feel vaguely jealous of animals like bears, bats, skunks or groundhogs—they (and many others) hibernate through the cold season, often for months on end.
Hibernation isn’t a really long night’s sleep though, it’s an extended duration of something called torpor—a controlled reduction of metabolic rate that reduces energy needs and allows an animal to go prolonged periods without eating. When an animal induces torpor, its body temperature falls to just above air temperature, and they don’t compensate by generating heat (say, by shivering).
Humans don’t hibernate, and it might be because we’ve evolved other ways of dealing with winter and food scarcity. (Actually, deep states of sleep and meditation reduce energy demands and body temperature in similar ways to torpor, but to a much lesser degree.)
But what if we could? There are a few scenarios where torpor would be really useful—medical contexts like stroke, cardiac arrest, and major blood loss, or more dramatically: humans traveling into deep space.
“Crewmembers in synthetic torpor would consume less food, water and oxygen, reducing demands on the spacecraft’s limited mass and volume capacities,” says Hannah Carey, a professor in the Department of Comparative Biosciences at University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. “Synthetic torpor may also confer protection from the ionizing radiation of deep space (50,000+ miles from earth), which is perhaps the greatest health hazard to crewmembers. And, synthetic torpor could offer crewmembers a hiatus from what is likely a challenging psychological environment.”
At a recent American Physiological Society conference, Carey and a group of researchers presented on what we know about torpor in animals, and how we might possibly induce it in humans one day.
Current research suggests that neurons in two areas of the brain, the raphe pallidus region and the hypothalamus, are important for starting torpor in animals, Carey tells me. The neurons in the raphe pallidus control brown fat, which generates heat. Those neurons would have to be turned off during torpor, so researchers are looking for how animals do that. The hypothalamus is home to neurons that sense body temperature and body energy stores, which is also important during torpor. Figuring out exactly what these two brain regions are doing in hibernating animals and how they’re regulated could lead to methods of inducing it in humans.
“For example, a drug cocktail that targets the brain’s control center to reduce metabolic rate and inhibit the body’s natural inclination to turn up heat production could induce and sustain states of synthetic torpor,” Carey says. “This cocktail could be administered following a preparatory phase that may include nutritional intervention to mimic how animals in nature prepare for the hibernation season, and/or deep meditative states that reduce heart rate, breathing, and other processes related to metabolism.“
What happened when teenagers quit smoking weed for a month
It’s no secret that teenagers smoke weed, and surveys show that daily use is increasing in teens between 8th and 12th grade. But being a teenager isn’t just a time for talking back to your parents, it’s also a crucial time for brain development and researchers are asking what the effects of cannabis are during that time.
The brain continues to develop until at least 25 years old, says Randi Schuster, director of Neuropsychology at the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). “Therefore, as many states move toward the creation of legalized commercial markets for cannabis, it is urgent that we understand how early use impacts the ability of young people to learn,” she tells me.
THC, which is the stuff in cannabis that actually gets you high, targets receptors in the brain called CB1 receptors. These receptors also happen to be concentrated in areas of the brain that are the least developed during the teen years, and are important for memory and thinking abilities.
In 2016, Schuster and a research team at MGH found that teens 16 and under who smoked weed had difficulty learning new information—but those who were over 17 didn’t. And in a new study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, the same researchers looked at what happened to people’s learning and memory when they stopped smoking for one month. It’s one of the first studies to look at how brain function changes after stopping using weed.
In the new study, they found that quitting smoking helped young people to improve in learning new information—which is pretty important in school. “These findings strongly suggest that abstaining from cannabis helps young people learn, while continuing cannabis use may interfere with the learning process,” Schuster says.
They’re doing a follow-up study now, which will look at other types of memory and cognition, as well as if the length of time a teen had smoked impacts how much they are affected. “This is a very important question and one that we are investigating in our follow-up study,” Schuster tells me. “What we see here, though, is that even ‘weekend’ cannabis users benefit from abstinence.”
Your weekly health and science reading list
How virtual reality is transforming autism studies. By George Musser in Spectrum.
Virtual reality could help parents and researchers get closer to what the experience of autism is like.
Gutted about opioids. By Wudan Yan in Nature.
What does the microbiome have to do with addiction?
Postpartum can be both boundless love and breathtaking sadness. It shouldn’t mean silence. By Alissa Ambrose in STAT.
“I loved my baby more than it was possible to describe. I also had postpartum depression and anxiety. It was hard to square those facts.”
Mortals anonymous: Inside the cafes where people go to talk about dying. By Lexi Pandell in Wired.
What happens when people talk about the one thing that scares almost everyone.
My grandfather thought he solved a cosmic mystery. By Veronique Greenwood in The Atlantic.
“My grandfather had a theory, one that he believed to be among the most important work of his career. And it had never been published.”
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