Pam Chmiel, host of The Mary Jane Society podcast, discusses VR and psychedelic research with Sarah Hashkes, head of scientific research into psychedelics at Red Light Holland.
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Red Light Holland is the only publicly traded company actively selling psilocybin in the Netherlands and working with lobbyists and grassroots organizations worldwide to try to provide people with the same access as those in the Netherlands.
Sarah Hashkes, head of scientific research into psychedelics at Red Light Holland, uses VR technology to research how psychedelics can increase plasticity in the brain. She and her team are ahead of science in understanding psychedelics, and she shared her insights for this article.
Q&A with Sarah Hashkes
WHAT LED YOU TO VIRTUAL REALITY (VR) TECHNOLOGY TO STUDY PSYCHEDELICS’ EFFECTS ON THE HUMAN BRAIN?
I started researching and figuring out how to use psychedelics to change people’s behavior patterns. I pivoted into virtual reality (VR) as a technique to induce plasticity because there are similarities and differences in how psychedelics and VR work. And because it was nearly impossible to access psilocybin for experiments, I considered VR the next best thing.
THE NETHERLANDS LEGALLY ALLOWS THE SALE OF “MAGIC TRUFFLES,” WHICH RED LIGHT HOLLAND SELLS. ARE THEY HALLUCINOGENIC OR RELATED TO PSILOCYBIN MUSHROOMS?
Truffles, also known as fungis’ sclerotia, are the underground portion of the psilocybin mushroom, the same thing, just a different part of the fungi. It’s only referred to as truffles because it’s underground, but it’s not a truffle. It’s sclerotia. It’s a loophole the Netherlands uses to make it legal. The Netherlands previously allowed the sale of psilocybin mushrooms, then changed course and shut it down.
The Netherlands forbids the dehydration process of “truffles” to potentially keep them weaker than their above-ground counterparts because of their water weight.
IS THE DEHYDRATION PROCESS OF PSILOCYBIN SIMILAR TO DECARBOXYLATION FOR CANNABIS FOR ACTIVATING THE PSYCHOACTIVE INGREDIENTS?
No, the psychoactive compounds are absolutely active in truffles and magic mushrooms without activating them. However, the main psychoactive component is psilocybin, and it does need to get converted in your gut to psilocin. Water extractions seem to work as well.
YOU WROTE THE FIRST ACADEMIC PAPER USING VR AS A PREDICTIVE CODING FRAMEWORK TO EXPLAIN WHAT PSYCHEDELICS DO IN THE BRAIN. PLEASE GIVE US AN OVERVIEW OF YOUR RESEARCH.
My research is based on the science that came before me, especially Robin Carhart-Harris’s work around the entropic brain. I formalized it in a predictive coding framework, and it took them about two more years to come out with a similar paper, which was very cool as a student at the time to be ahead of the science.
The predictive coding framework looks at our brain as a prediction machine solely influenced by our senses, not the outside world. The brain combines the information it learned in the past with new sensory inputs. And through this predictive coding framework, we can reduce entropy, meaning we can reduce the possible states we can be in because, as biological creatures, some states are livable, and others are not.
I like giving people a metaphor to explain this better. If you imagine you’re on a beach building sand castles, the sand is like the information coming into your senses. There’s so much of it, noisy and everywhere. You are filling these buckets, and the shape of the bucket is based on what you’ve learned from the past, perhaps even from the womb.
The magic of psychedelics is that they take these buckets and break them down into various shapes and sizes, not the usual buckets we know. And when that happens, you get a prediction error because there’s so much sand, and the broken-down buckets can’t process it. The brain starts moving around the extra sand to see if another part of the brain can explain the overload and develop different mechanisms to reduce prediction error.
You can’t use VR to break down the buckets, you can only do it with psychedelics, but with VR, I can start playing with the “sand” to cause secondary effects of psychedelics. I can put people in different bodies and change the laws of physics. For example, when someone moves their right hand, they will perceive that their left hand moved. The idea is to create plasticity, so your brain needs to deal with it. The secondary effects create plasticity because they connect different parts of the brain that aren’t usually connected and alert the brain to learn new patterns.
I think it’s important to note this brain process does not happen when using MDMA and Ketamine because they’re not the same thing. Classic psychedelics have a very safe profile, they’re not addictive in any way, and you can’t overdose on them.
CAN YOU USE VR AND PSYCHEDELICS TOGETHER AS A TREATMENT IN ADDITION TO RESEARCH?
Each of these modalities is very powerful, and I do not recommend combining them simultaneously. We created a VR experience called Wisdom that teaches us what psychedelics do to the brain and can slightly mimic some effects like synesthesia.
We are the most complex structure we know of in this universe, and looking into your “operating system” through psychedelics allows us to modify and upgrade it in little places. When humans start learning and adapting, the brain goes through various developmental stages where it becomes hyperplastic, and many connections happen. And then there’s a process called pruning, where if you don’t use these pathways, they get cut off eventually.
Some evidence shows that psychedelics can take us back to this developmental stage, where neurons can start regrowing new pathways to remake these connections. But again, we still need to do a lot of research, and this type of research in humans is tricky because we’re not opening up brains and looking at how the neurons grow. At this point, we have some animal studies; it’s only a theory of what we think is happening.
WHAT KIND OF RESEARCH ARE WE SEEING IN PEOPLE WITH DEPRESSION, PTSD, ALCOHOLISM, ADHD, OR OTHER ILLNESSES THAT MIGHT BENEFIT FROM PSYCHEDELIC TREATMENT?
We are seeing effects on the brainwaves of people micro-dosing that is similar in pattern to people who use larger doses which means the slower waves are weaker, and we think these weaker slower brain waves correlate to the breaking down of the top-down buckets.
One piece of evidence done with a patient population was for OCD, and they saw an improvement with microdosing, which tells us that there is likely potential to treat people who are in a pattern they can’t break. But also, we’re seeing anecdotal research for things like migraine headaches or improving PMS for women.
Through Red Light Holland’s iMicroApp, we have seen data that the younger generation is microdosing to help them with focus to treat ADHD symptoms. I believe that ADHD medications are overprescribed, and I’ve seen a lot of abuse and unhealthy patterns in people who use them, so there’s a chance that microdosing can be an alternative.
IS THERE SUCH A THING AS THE ENTOURAGE EFFECT IN MAGIC MUSHROOMS SIMILAR TO THAT IN CANNABIS?
It’s possible, but we don’t know a lot about the other molecules in mushrooms. We understand that some edible or functional mushrooms have turned into cancer medication. The fungus world is amazing, and we know very little. Possible? Yes, but we do not have a scientific conclusion yet.