Study: Psychedelics Change The Way People With Depression Read Faces

By Kelly Burch 06/21/19

Researchers believe that even one dose of a psychedelic could change the way that people read facial expressions.

two men reading each other's faces

Psychedelics may help alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety by making sufferers more adept at reading other people’s facial expressions, according to a recent review of scientific studies. 

The review, published in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, looked at eight previous studies that examined the effects of psychedelics. The authors of the review found that psychedelics changed how people read facial expressions, and that change had an effect on their symptoms of mental illness.  

“Our most consistent finding was that these drugs reduced the recognition of negative emotions and modulated amygdala activity to these stimuli. This effect was correlated with antidepressive effects in depressed patients,” study authors wrote. 

They noted that the pool they reviewed was small, so there is a need for further review. Still, they said the results were promising. 

“Despite the small sample sizes, results suggest that serotonergic hallucinogens show promising beneficial effects on deficits in recognition of emotions in facial expressions,” they wrote.

People with depression and anxiety often have unusual patterns of social cognition, in particular when it comes to interpreting other people’s facial expressions. 

“Some studies show that people with anxiety and mood disorders have deficits in the recognition of facial expressions,” study authors wrote. “For example, in social anxiety disorder, which is characterized by fear of undergoing criticism or negative judgment in social situations, there is hypervigilance to facial expressions of fear, sadness, and joy, and these expressions act as indicators of threat or social reinforcement according to the phenotype of the disorder.”

Researchers found that even one dose of a psychedelic could change the way that people read facial expressions, and help alleviate depression symptoms. 

“Indeed, the studies reviewed showed that a single dose or a few doses of LSD or psilocybin was associated with a modified pattern of recognition of negative emotions that could be interpreted as beneficial, since several of these studies showed that these modifications were correlated with increases in positive mood and/or anxiolytic and antidepressant effects,” the study authors wrote. 

Psychedelics weren’t the only drugs that changed emotional facial perceptions. The study authors also found that MDMA (ecstasy) has similar effects.

“There is also evidence that the serotonergic drug MDMA consistently reduces identification of negative emotions in tasks of face recognition and decreases the activity of the amygdala,” they wrote, adding that this could be similar to the way pharmaceutical antidepressants work.

”These mechanisms, associated with the capacity of MDMA to enhance serotonergic tone in the prefrontal cortex, could be shared mechanisms with traditional antidepressants and classic hallucinogens for emotional regulation in subjects with mood and anxiety disorders.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.