Maria Balaet, PhD candidate
Imperial College London
Findings from a large field study on the effects of psychedelics on cognition
Psychedelics research advanced considerably in the past decade. Substantial efforts have been made to understand the underlying neural and pharmacological basis of the psychedelic experience. And yet, despite recent discoveries facilitated by the use of tools such as magnetic resonance imaging or electroencephalography, the effects psychedelics have on cognition are still to be fully uncovered. Our current understanding of the cognitive effects of psychedelics relies heavily on cognitive testing performed in the laboratory. This format is accepted by the scientific community, since it allows the researcher full control over all experimental parameters. Considering the crucial importance of set and setting, and the now abundant literature detailing how the environment influences the experience, it is natural to question the ecological validity of these past measurements.
The current study emerged from the central premise that studying the effects of psychedelics on cognition in a confined environment lacks ecological validity. We decided to look at the experience in more naturalistic environment, where the participant is in charge of their set and setting. We carried out a field study on volunteers who under the influence of psychedelics were participating in psychedelic ceremonies in an environment that was not altered by the researchers. The aim of this study was to perform a general cognitive assessment of memory, speech, attention, executive function and prediction abilities under psychedelics and compare these with age matched controls. Furthermore, we compared the effects of LSD to those of psilocybin on the same cognitive domains.
Maria Balaet began her research career by focusing on the pharmacological modulation of memory. Later, she discovered programming and developed a passion for building computational tools that can be used to solve real life problems. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Computational Neuroscience at Imperial College London, looking at how we could predict how cognition evolves over time and use this clinically and beyond. As a direct result of her fascination and curiosity surrounding psychedelic drugs, in 2019, she led a field study investigating how psychedelics impact cognition in unconfined environments.