Wow. This blog was inspired by a podcast I listened to where Tim Ferris interviewed neuroscience professor, Dr. Gül Dölen. Dr. Dölen runs her own lab at Johns Hopkins University where they research psychedelic use for therapeutic benefits. If you'd like to listen to the interview which I believe is worth your time then you can check it out here: https://tim.blog/2023/04/19/gul-dolen/
Let me get this out of the way now. LSD, MDMA, AND ANY OTHER PSYCHEDELIC DRUGS ARE (currently as of 4/26/23) ILLEGAL TO POSSESS OR CONSUME. I BY NO MEANS AM ADVOCATING SOMEONE USE OR POSSESS THESE ILLEGAL SUBSTANCES. EVEN THOUGH THE GOVERNMENT IS FUNDING THESE STUDIES BECAUSE THE CURRENT RESEARCH SHOWS THE POSITIVE BENEFITS, IT IS STILL ILLEGAL. REGARDLESS OF LEGALITY, ANYONE UNDER THE AGE OF 25 THAT DOESN'T HAVE A FULLY FORMED PRE-FRONTAL CORTEX SHOULD NOT CONSUME ANY MIND-ALTERING SUBSTANCES WHATSOEVER.
Now that that's out of the way, let's dig into this. Dr. Dölen discusses in the podcast linked above a story about an experiment done with snow geese in the 1930s where Konrad Lorenz took newborn geese and separated them where half saw their mother once they hatched and the other half saw Lorenz. The half that saw Lorenz viewed him as their mother and treated him as such indicating that he imprinted on them at an early age who their caregiver was. They found that geese become imprinted by the first moving object they see within an amount of time defined as the "Critical Period". This critical period is important in the learning and adapting of a human/mammal. Every mammal has a different window for their critical learning period and every system has a different critical period such as learning, language, emotional and social connections, and movement. It covers the senses in the body which are all related neurologically.
Fast forward a few years and psychedelic research is starting to gain traction. It's still listed federally as a Schedule 1 drug and it's still illegal, but due to the success it's showing in healing veterans with PTSD in just one dose (Study) more money is being thrown at future studies and the government is literally fast-tracking (Link) these studies to learn more at a quicker pace. Regardless of your opinion on hallucinogenic drugs, science is discovering some amazing benefits from a number of them with just a single use. The other positive benefit that they're finding is that it's non-addictive. Let me also acknowledge that I've never used these substances so I don't have a first-hand experience of the effects. Let's transition into the purpose of this blog.
Dr. Dölen's lab found that by giving lab mice MDMA they were able to re-open these critical periods of learning which is re-wiring the brain's experiences and adaptations. I won't go into all of the details and scientific nomenclature of the study, but basically, it opened the critical period in the mice for up to two weeks to re-learn social reward learning and interaction. Dr. Dölen and many others in this research space believe that this critical period re-opening can expand beyond just social interaction but also any sensory and neurodevelopmental stage of development. She exclaimed that they may be able to change the body's neurologic reaction to allergies and that the critical period of touch and movement may be re-opened in stroke patients that lose control of part of their body due to neurologic death and can be trained and brought back to normal function with the utilization of this critical period. Whoa! That's a wild statement! This literally caused me to almost pull my car over to write down the thoughts that were swirling around my head.
Dr. Dölen mentions that when MDMA, LSD, or Psilocybin (Magic Mushrooms) are used in a party setting you won't see the same results as if it's used in a professional setting by a trained guide. So here goes my brain. If a single dose of MDMA can open up a critical period of learning in someone trying to re-learn new movement patterns can this concept be used with athletes that develop less than-ideal movement patterns from early development?
In developmental kinesiology, a baby learns different phases of movement which are purely neurologic and ingrained and they don't need to be taught. These phases consist of learning to stabilize on your back, then belly, then rolling, then uprighting, then crawling, then uprighting, then squatting, and then walking. If someone has a delay or corruption in their movement development then they start to develop new movement patterns which can cause compensation strategies that can be prominent for the rest of that individual's life. Delays or alterations in developmental kinesiology can be caused by forcing a baby into bumbo seats or jumpers or if they're forced to walk by their parents holding them up. The brain learns these movements during this critical period of movement and doesn't let go of this pattern because it received a positive result from that movement strategy which probably also releases some dopamine into the system as a reward to let you know you did something right. This leads to more usage of this movement pathway. What can happen is the mover may never learn to roll or crawl or upright which deconditions the stabilization strategies to achieve those motions at these early ages and now they start down the path of using a compensatory strategy to repeat that movement strategy that they learned out of sequence. If we're talking about rotational athletes then that's a huge deal if they don't learn the right stabilization strategies to create cross-crawl patterns which are incredibly important in rotating. I use the example of the bent twig theory to understand this concept. If you bend a twig it'll grow in that direction, but if you try bending it when it's a tree it won't go anywhere. So the strategies learned early are incredibly important to how we all learn to move.
Now let's get to where my brain is taking me. If MDMA can open up the critical period for movement then maybe we can teach movers that missed stages of development that caused them to develop certain movement strategies. I work with many different throwers from the highest and lowest levels of performance on a daily basis and every single one of them has a slightly different movement strategy. Some of these movers are breaking down quicker due to how they learned to stabilize and move. These movement strategies were probably developed early during their critical periods for movement. Could MDMA potentially give us a re-opened critical period to change those movement patterns to optimize their movement?
There are many challenges to this premise with the obvious being that these substances are illegal federally, they're on the banned substance list for MLB which you can view here, and you would not want to perform these studies on anyone under 25 due to the development of the frontal cortex not occurring until that age. Aaron Rodgers has famously come forward about his experience using psychedelics which he states has dramatically changed his perspective on life and potentially resulted in him having the best year of his career. The psychedelic he took, Ayahuasca, is illegal federally but is not on the banned substance list for the NFL.
After learning about how this stuff works and how it changes the wiring of the brain it makes me believe that it changes how the brain thinks it must achieve a dopamine release. It's essentially giving the brain a clean slate to learn how to find that dopamine release and forgets the previous methods it used to use. This would explain why it's helped many people get off of opioids and smoking cigarettes. If we can create a clean slate for movement then maybe we can re-learn new movement patterns and change the compensations that seem to be hardwired that potentially reduce the effectiveness of energy transfer to other parts of the body OR reduce the likelihood of soft tissue or connective tissue breakdown and injury.
I understand that this is a silly idea, and I understand that this isn't even an option for the majority of situations due to many variables, but the latest research that's coming out about how psychedelics (when used correctly) can change the plasticity of your brain and give you an internal reset to open the critical period of learning then I want to throw out the idea that there could be different therapeutic benefits that revolve around function and movement optimization. I've actually had a conversation around the use of psychedelics with a prominent mind in the baseball space in which he had told me he thinks it's the key to unlocking your full potential due to the effect of letting your ego go. I responded with the idea that it's much more about a neurologic response to movement than anything when changing our movement and performance. It turns out we might have both been right.
Like a great poet once said, "MDMA got you feelin' like a champion. The city never sleeps, better slip you a Ambien." - Jay Z