Magic mushrooms contain psilocybin, a drug that causes users to experience frightening but perhaps enlightening experiences. A new study has now revealed psilocybin produces these trippy experiences by altering the way the brain communicates with itself.
Researchers from King’s College in the UK used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to take brain scans of two groups of participants: individuals who had received a 2 mg dose of psilocybin, and those who were given a placebo.
Brain activity typically follows specific neural pathways, and the scans initially showed random increased activity all across the brain. The team looked more closely at what appeared to be sporadic brain activity and found that the drug was actually forming different connections in the brain
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Homological scaffolds of brain functional networks
Networks, as efficient representations of complex systems, have appealed to scientists for a long time and now permeate many areas of science, including neuroimaging (Bullmore and Sporns 2009 Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 10, 186–198. (doi:10.1038/nrn2618)). Traditionally, the structure of complex networks has been studied through their statistical properties and metrics concerned with node and link properties, e.g. degree-distribution, node centrality and modularity.
Here, we study the characteristics of functional brain networks at the mesoscopic level from a novel perspective that highlights the role of inhomogeneities in the fabric of functional connections. This can be done by focusing on the features of a set of topological objects—homological cycles—associated with the weighted functional network. We leverage the detected topological information to define the homological scaffolds, a new set of objects designed to represent compactly the homological features of the correlation network and simultaneously make their homological properties amenable to networks theoretical methods.
As a proof of principle, we apply these tools to compare resting-state functional brain activity in 15 healthy volunteers after intravenous infusion of placebo and psilocybin—the main psychoactive component of magic mushrooms. The results show that the homological structure of the brain's functional patterns undergoes a dramatic change post-psilocybin, characterized by the appearance of many transient structures of low stability and of a small number of persistent ones that are not observed in the case of placebo.
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