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Psilocybin Can Enhance How People Emotionally Connect to Music

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Oct 18, 2021   
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Taking psilocybin can affect one’s emotional state when listening to music, according to new research presented earlier this month at the 34th ​​ECNP Congress in Lisbon.

Psilocybin, the active psychedelic component of magic mushrooms, has previously shown great promise when used in therapy settings for the treatment of depression. Many of these clinical trials often make use of selected music playlists to support the subjective psychedelic experience felt by the trial participant.

Now, scientists believe that this action of combining psilocybin with music may result in enhanced emotional processing on behalf of the participant, implying that music should be treated as a more active component of psilocybin therapy.

Psilocybin raises emotional response scores

To study how psilocybin affects the elicitation of emotions, the Copenhagen University Hospital researchers enrolled 20 healthy individuals into a randomized, cross-over, single-blinded study. Each of the participants were given a dose of psilocybin and then tested on their emotional response to a set program of classical music using the nine-item Geneva Emotional Music Scale (GEMS) checklist. Fourteen participants were also tested after taking ketanserin, an anti-hypertension drug that is commonly utilized as a comparison in psychedelic experiments.

“We found that psilocybin markedly enhanced the emotional response to music, when compared to the response before taking the drugs,” Dea Siggaard Stenbæk, lead study author and assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement.

“On the measurement scale we used, psilocybin increased the emotional response to music by around 60 percent. This response was even greater when compared to ketanserin. In fact, we found that ketanserin lessens the emotional response to music.”

Given this significant effect size, the researchers believe that musical accompaniments to the psilocybin-assisted therapy experience may need to be recognized as an important facet of treatment in their own right.

“This shows that combination of psilocybin and music has a strong emotional effect, and we believe that this will be important for the therapeutic application of psychedelics if they are approved for clinical use. Psilocybin is under development as a drug to treat depression, and this work implies that music needs to be considered as a therapeutic part of the treatment,” said Stenbæk.

The program of classical music chosen by the researchers for this study lasted approximately 10 minutes and consisted of the Enigma Variations No.8 and No.9 (“W.N.” and “Nimrod”) by Edward Elgar and one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s choral works, the Laudate Dominium.

“Interestingly, some of the music we used, Elgar famous ‘Nimrod’ variation (the 9th variation) describes his close friend Augustus Jaeger. Jaeger encouraged Elgar to write the variations as a way out of depression, so we’re pleased to see it used again to help understand more about mental health,” Stenbæk added.

Psilocybin, serotonin, and music therapy

Previous work looking at the psychedelic LSD has also demonstrated this effect where using a psychedelic can enhance the emotional response to music. In this previous research, it was suggested that LSD may use its action as a serotonin 2A receptor (5-HT2AR) agonist to alter the emotional processing response of the user.

This latest study on psilocybin and the emotional response to music goes some way towards answering how exactly psychedelics can exert this effect. Similarly to LSD, psilocybin is also a 5-HT2AR receptor agonist. Conversely, ketanserin, the other drug administered in this trial, is a 5-HT2AR receptor antagonist.

Given the positive associations between psilocybin and heightened GEMS scores and the noticeable reduction from baseline scores when ketanserin was given, the researchers believe this study further supports the idea of the 5-HT2AR receptor playing an important modulating role in music-evoked emotions.

“This is further evidence of the potential of using music to facilitate treatment efficacy with psychedelics,” commented Professor David J. Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, in a statement. Professor Nutt was not a part of the research team behind this latest study but is a renowned expert in the field of psychedelics research.

“What we need to do now is optimise this approach probably through individualising and personalising music tracks in therapy,” Nutt added.

The Danish researchers say that they intend to continue this area of research by using MRI imaging to examine the effect of music on the brain while under the influence of psilocybin.


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