Rapt attention

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Expanding the critical period

I don't know how many of my readers have experimented with psychedelic substances at some point in their lives? 10%, 20%? I have no idea.

You read about all the microdosing going on today but it's not like people hang a sign around their neck saying "I am tripping." So who knows?

Not part of my daily regimen either certainly but I do think my early psych exploration was formative, to say the least. And if my average reader is say 70 and you do the math and subtract 1968 from 2023, it is possible that even some of you button downs had a fling or two with Sally going 'round the roses back in your nehru jacket days. Wasn't for everybody certainly but could be incredibly enlightening if you respected it and it was right for you.

In any case, there is a point here somewhere. Or should I say, a critical but expanded point. An article at Wired, The psychedelic scientist who sent brains back to childhood. I don't think the headline is exactly illustrative of the content but I am not the editor. The article itself is quite interesting.

The poem gets at a simple, profound notion in physics—that the particles making up Huxley and those of a chair always mingle, whether the two are rooms apart or butt-smashed-to-seat. That’s how she felt, too, as if the rules that had always governed her perceivable reality were blurring with those of a different plane of being. In the midst of this creative explosion, she had an epiphany. The extreme isolation of lockdown might have tipped her into an exceptional brain state. Absurd coincidence, if true. Dölen has spent much of her career studying this exact state: a time of heightened receptiveness, usually in childhood, called a critical period. 

Critical periods are well known to neuroscientists and ethologists, because they lay the groundwork for a creature’s behavior. They are finite windows of time, ranging from days to years, when the brain is especially impressionable and open to learning. 

It’s during a critical period that songbirds learn to sing and humans learn to speak. There are critical periods for walking, seeing, and hearing as well as bonding with parents, developing absolute pitch, and assimilating into a culture. Some neuroscientists suspect there are as many critical periods as there are brain functions. Eventually, all critical periods close, and for good reason. After a while, extreme openness becomes inefficient, or downright dysfunctional. 

If you have not previously dabbled in these sorts of potions this will all probably sound like gibberish. But I think she is on to something here.

That an array of drugs have this potential also means that something deeper must unite these psychedelics in their ability to transfigure the mind. That deeper thing, Dölen’s findings indicate so far, happens not at the level of brain regions or neurons’ receptors, as scientists have previously thought, but at the level of gene expression. So far, her lab has pinpointed 65 genes that seem to be involved in this process, and their involvement suggests that psychedelics' effects last well beyond an acute “high.” Piecing together the details of this mechanistic puzzle, Dölen suspects, will keep her occupied for the next decade. 

Meanwhile, she’s got other big questions to chase. For one, each psychedelic activates a mouse’s critical period for a different length of time. The longer the drug trip, the longer the openness lasts—and, perhaps, the more durable the therapeutic response. A ketamine trip for a human lasts 30 minutes to an hour, and in mice, the drug opens a critical period for two days. The four- to five-hour trips of psilocybin and MDMA keep the critical period open for two weeks. LSD’s eight- to ten-hour human trips translate to three weeks of openness for a mouse. And ibogaine’s trips (36 hours in people) put mice in the open state for at least four weeks, after which Dölen stopped taking measurements. 

Assuming the drugs can in fact reopen critical periods in humans, Dölen’s work, which she and her colleagues published in June, suggests that the brains of people who undergo psychedelic therapy are likely in a state conducive to learning for days, weeks, or even months after the drug has technically cleared their system. This leaves room for further gains long after they’ve come down, Dölen says, and suggests that people would benefit from continued therapeutic support well after their trip. 

Anyway her mention of MMDA brings me back to a night in college. I was working on an architecture drawing for a utopian home I was designing and I took MDA for the first and only time in my life. It was a powder that you dissolved in liquid and drank and I believe they called it licorice back then.

I sat back and started on my working drawing with my pen and the most extraordinary thing happened. Plants and frogs sprung unannounced out of my pen and filled the page effortlessly and beautifully. I merely had to touch the nib to the vellum and watch my creation spill out, it was the most extraordinary artistic session I have ever had as an artist. An utter flow, rendered to perfection and seemingly on its own volition!

The next day my professor and fellow student were blown away. I didn't say a word of course. I may still have the working drawing somewhere. I will say that any attempts at creating art on acid or other psychedelics were utter failures for me, way too in congruent and disjointed to make any sense at all. But the MDA was fascinating, a one off experience in my life.

I want to back and reread the article and delve in a little more.

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