by Kylie Bachmann (’24)
We’ve all seen the stereotypical fraternity/sorority parties in the movies. Often, partiers are holding red solo cups, standing near kegs, dancing, and most shockingly – doing party drugs. Party drugs are classified as psychoactive substances, used mostly by teenagers and adolescents at parties, as the name suggests. Some common party drugs or psychedelics you might have heard of include opioids, LSD, DMT and psilocybin (more commonly referred to as magic mushrooms). In these movies, the drugs seem harmless, but what are they actually doing to your system?
Psychedelics are a subset of hallucinogenic drugs that can alter different neurological pathways, overstimulate the brain, and trigger altered states of consciousness, commonly referred to as ‘trips’. These trips are usually connected with spiritual awakenings and feelings of euphoria, which is a main reason for use. While these trips seem appealing, there are also ‘bad trips,’ which can cause confusion, difficulty concentrating, numbness, impaired motor functioning, vomiting, extreme anxiety, panic, and increased breathing/heart rate. Recently, a study done by American pharmacologist David E. Nichols found that people with higher neuroticism or predisposition to anxiety, depression, and introversion are much more likely to experience bad trips. These trips can sometimes feel so disturbing to the user that it might cause unpredictable and rash behaviors such as attempting suicide.
These trips are caused by the lack of a phenomenon known as thalamus gating. When you intake information via your five senses (touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight), this information is sorted out in the thalamus via different pathways. During the use of psychedelics, the thalamus is not able to sort out the intake of these senses, so the user might experience increased anxiety due to the overstimulation of the amygdala or synesthesia such as hearing colors and tasting sounds. Psychedelics also are known to be agonists at 5HT-2A serotonin receptors, which modulate pathways related to sensory perception. This means that psychedelics bind to 2A serotonin receptors and activate them, which can cause the release of a neurotransmitter cocktail consisting of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, contributing to feelings of euphoria and bliss.
While these drugs are not physically addictive and you cannot overdose on them, there is still risk involved in their use. Physically addictive drugs chemically cause dependency which affects all users, whereas psychological addiction does not have any chemical basis and may look different for different people. With this, it is possible to be psychologically addicted, but not physically addictive. These drugs are also illegal and are not permitted to be used unless under the supervision of a qualified professional. Sometimes, psychedelics can be used for therapies and in very small doses to enhance creativity, but these drugs are extremely dangerous in high amounts. As described earlier, bad trips can occur, most often when the user takes a particularly strong batch or takes a high dose. In some rare cases, people have accidentally committed suicide, not only due to extreme panic, but also because they believed they possessed superpowers, or simply forgot that they can’t stand in the middle of a busy intersection to look at the sky. Certain psychedelics can also cause flashbacks and long-term effects, such as changes in personality. Some hypothesize that psilocybin specifically has been linked to the onset of psychosis due to permanent brain pathway alterations.
Overall, the lesson to be learned here is that psychedelics and party drugs are not simple substances and can have very complex consequences. Users should be informed and careful when using them.
Nichols, D. E. (2016). Psychedelics. Pharmacological Reviews, 68(2), 264–355. https://doi.org/10.1124/pr.115.011478
Brain mechanisms of hallucinogens and entactogens. (2001). New Perspectives in Chronic Psychoses, 3(4), 265–279. https://doi.org/10.31887/dcns.2001.3.4/fxvollenweider