Psilocybin Spurs Dynamic Brain ‘Hyperconnectivity’ Linked to Psychedelic Epiphanies

A neuroimaging study reveals how the psychedelic compound in "magic mushrooms" induces heightened neural connectivity associated with ego-dissolution.

A new imaging study offers insights into how psychedelic drugs like psilocybin may promote a sense of spiritual unity and insightfulness by inducing a pattern of hyperconnectivity in the brain. The research, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, examines the neurological underpinnings of the “ego-dissolving” and “oceanic boundlessness” effects often reported during psychedelic experiences.

According to the authors, a compound found in the psychedelic psilocybin creates a state of heightened neural connectivity linked to the profound feelings of interconnectedness and blissfulness associated with psychedelic sessions. A press release notes that “oceanic boundlessness” refers to this sense of unity and insightfulness frequently described by individuals undergoing psychedelic therapy.

Unlike previous studies that showed increased static global brain connectivity under psychedelics, the current research reveals that this state of hyperconnectivity is dynamic, with the rate of transition between states of heightened connectivity coinciding with intense altered states of consciousness.

While psilocybin has been extensively studied for its potential therapeutic applications across a range of disorders, from depression and anxiety to addiction, Johannes Ramaekers, lead investigator and a faculty member at the psychology and neuroscience department at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, says the neurological basis of the profound experiences induced by the psychedelic remained unclear.

“What was not fully understood is what brain activity is associated with these profound experiences,” notes Ramaekers.

The study analyzed previously acquired functional magnetic resonance imaging data from 22 individuals who received a dose of psilocybin and 27 who received a placebo. During the peak effects of the drug, the psilocybin group reported profound phenomenological changes compared to placebo. Brain connectivity analysis revealed a pattern of heightened global connectivity that dynamically re-emerged over time in those under psilocybin.

“Averaged and dynamic connectivity analyses suggest that psilocybin alters brain function such that the overall neurobiological pattern becomes functionally more connected, more fluid and less modular,” Ramaekers says.

This heightened neural cross-talk and reduced modularity potentially underlies the unitive, boundless experiences and bizarre associations characteristic of the psychedelic state.

The data from the study could help health care professionals learn how to best design psychedelic therapy sessions to produce the best clinical outcomes, says lead investigator Athena Demertzi.