How we interact with others and understand their emotions, intentions, and actions in a social setting is a fundamental characteristic of our human existence. The ability to integrate and understand these social experiences in a healthy manner is known as “social cognition” and “allows us to sustain interactions, develop relations with others, understand each other, and act together.”
However, a central theme underlying many psychiatric disorders is that of dysfunctional social cognition, which critically impacts the evolution and treatment of these disorders (e.g. schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, depression, and social anxiety disorder). Despite the importance of understanding the neurobiological basis of social cognition to develop new psychiatric treatment approaches, few studies have been carried out to this end.
To remedy this paucity of research, a team of Swiss neurobiologists have conducted a study (published in the journal PNAS, in April 2016) on how psilocybin intake and consequent stimulation of serotonin receptors affected the emotional processing of study participants to negative social interactions. The authors note: “Impairments in social cognition are leading causes of disability and compromise real-world functioning, including independent living and productivity at work.” They go on to state: “[A] better understanding of the neurobiological foundations of social cognition is urgently required for the development of novel and targeted therapies.”
The researchers opted to use psilocybin, the primary hallucinogenic component found in magic mushrooms, because it binds with high affinity to several serotonin receptors in the brain. Research on the system of serotonin receptors has revealed that these receptors play a key role in the regulation of mood, emotions, learning, and memory, and are implicated in social cognition. Furthermore, psilocybin has been shown to modulate neural activity in brain areas associated with social cognition.