‘Melding with the MRI machine’: The volunteers taking psychedelic drugs for science

Michael Taylor was lying in an MRI machine when he had the most joyous experience of his life.

It sounds ridiculous, he says, but the industrial clanking of the scanner built into a symphony in his brain.

Psilocybin is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.Credit:Getty

“It was the most magical music that I have ever heard.”

The music rose to a crescendo, like a wave building, and eventually, it broke and Taylor was flooded with joy.

“I felt myself smiling, laughing; I’m sure I giggled at one point,” he says. “I was thinking: ‘I can’t believe this is happening. Why don’t more people get to experience this?’”

Taylor had just taken a dose of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, as part of a clinical trial at the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health at Monash University.

He is one of 60 volunteers participating in PsiConnect, the first psychedelic trial in Australia involving healthy participants.

It is also one of the largest psychedelic trials worldwide to involve imaging of the brain.

“Finding people was hard because we wanted people who had never taken this drug before and don’t have any mental health history, even in their first-degree relatives,” says Associate Professor Adeel Razi, a neuroscientist from the Monash Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health.

Taylor is the antithesis of the consciousness-expanding trippy hippies immortalised in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He is in his late 40s, owns a small business and has never taken recreational drugs.

“I hadn’t been that kind of person, you know. I’ve never even smoked a cigarette in my life.”

Michael Taylor participated in a psychedelic drug trial and said the experience was one of the most profound of his life.Credit:Scott McNaughton

But inside that MRI machine, Taylor says he lost all sense of self.

“I actually felt myself melding with the MRI machine and becoming one with it. Which is crazy – but that’s what it was like, I was just part of everything else around me. I was everything. And everything was me.”

Despite early psychiatric experimentation in the 1950s and 60s, decades of prohibition has meant that the therapeutic possibilities of psilocybin and MDMA (the active substance in ecstasy) have remained largely unknown.

A new wave of research worldwide is showing that psychedelic drugs can be used to treat a variety of mental health conditions ranging from severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to addiction, Alzheimer’s disease and anorexia nervosa.

However, psychedelics may be harmful to people who have a genetic predisposition to psychosis, and they remain prohibited in Australia outside clinical trials.

Researchers such as Razi say rigorous scientific study is needed before they are integrated into publicly available therapy.

There is also debate in the scientific community about whether altered consciousness – such as what Taylor experienced – is key to the success of psychedelic therapy in treating mental illness or whether it is possible to develop drugs that provide therapeutic effects without hallucinations.

In March 2021, the Australian government announced it would provide $15 million for clinical trials to explore the use of psychedelics to augment and enable psychotherapy to be more effective.

Razi says PsiConnect, which is taking place at BrainPark at Monash University’s Clayton campus, will add to the psychedelic drug evidence base by examining the changes to a normally functioning brain after a dose of psilocybin.

Researchers are measuring the pattern of brain electrical activity in participants before and after they take 19 milligrams of synthesised psilocybin.

“I can look at how the brain is reacting to these compounds and that gives me a window into understanding consciousness,” Razi says.

”We need to have the evidence base of how it actually works in a brain without depression, and then the insights that we get, we can translate into use in a clinical setting.“

Robert Forsythe, who trained as a pharmacist, had read about the therapeutic use of psychedelics for people with mental illness and was keen to participate in the trial to help further the research.

“The other thing was, I suppose, I was just curious. I’m not a person who does drugs and the opportunity to pique that curiosity while under medical supervision and safe conditions, I thought, I might learn something from a personal level.”

At first, Forsythe experienced heightened sensory perceptions after taking the psilocybin: bright colours, the clanking of the keys on the researcher’s belt, a flickering light on the power socket.

“It felt a bit like one of those Quentin Tarantino movies where everything slows down,” he says.

Forsythe then had an MRI and EEG brain scan, while completing tasks such as allowing his mind to wander, watching videos of clouds and listening to music.

“What I found was really interesting was the part of your brain that judges whether something is good or bad shuts down. It’s like your ego is suspended. You’re in this state where it just is, which is quite unlike anything I’ve experienced. Listening to some old Beatles songs or whatnot, it makes a bit more sense.”

Adeel Razi has been leading a trial of the use of magic mushrooms on healthy adults. Credit:Penny Stephens

Forsythe says his mood remained elevated for several weeks after taking the psilocybin.

“I had this optimism and it did definitely change the way I thought about things. It’s starting to sound a bit corny, like summer love stuff, but it was like your empathy was really dialled up. You felt like one with the whole human race and one with creation. And, for somebody like me, who’s the sort of person who likes evidence of things, and is probably quite sceptical, I thought it was an interesting experience and not what I would have expected.”

Forysthe has signed up for a meditation course. “The trial has changed my perspective. I have a desire to go back to that meditative state.”

About 60% of the participants in the PsiConnect trial said it was one of the most meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their life.

“I think the most surprising thing is the overwhelmingly positive experiences that people had,” Razi says.

Just under half of those who did not find it meaningful or spiritually significant still rated it to be one of the most amazing or interesting experiences of their lives.

Around 10% did not experience much effect and around 5% experienced unpleasant effects.

“This number is low, and we were probably lucky,” Razi says.

The trial also examines the role of meditation. Participants were split into two groups, with one completing eight weeks of online group meditation before their scans.

This will help researchers determine what effects meditation may have on the brain and if the psychedelic experiences differ between the two groups.

“Our observation was that the meditation group was better prepared for the experience on the day, but now we are looking at whether that is backed up by the hard evidence,” Razi says.

Michael Taylor was part of the cohort that did group meditation for eight weeks before taking the psilocybin.

“I had never really succeeded in meditation before,” he says. “Some of the exercises they got you to do was body scans, where you are meant to concentrate on a certain part of your body and feel that part of your body. Even during the eight-week course, I had never managed to do that.”

But after taking the psilocybin, Taylor said he could feel specific areas of his skin, the sensation of being seated and hairs being moved by the air-conditioning.

“Even though I know I wasn’t meditating, I could concentrate on an area of my body with these heightened senses, and actually isolate that specific part, which was amazing to me.”

Taylor has continued meditating after the trial, and four months later, he can still pinpoint specific parts of his body.

“Clearly, something’s changed in my brain, some kind of switch has been flipped, which has allowed me to reach something that I wasn’t able to before. It’s changed me forever, I think, because I’ll never be able to forget what’s potentially possible.”

Razi says the first major findings of the trial will be published in six months’ time.

“We will make all the imaging data and behavioural data open access,” he says.

“It is one of the largest studies in the world, and anyone will be able to analyse the data, so it will have a long-lasting legacy.”

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