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New breakthrough opens doors to study hallucinations and mental health


(NaturalNews) The mystery of visual hallucinations and understanding what causes them, sometimes even in otherwise healthy individuals with no history of mental disorder, is still one of the big challenges within the field of mental health. But groundbreaking new research out of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia offers some fresh insights into this common but inexplicable phenomenon, pinpointing for the very first time specific mechanisms and pathways inside the brain that seem to play tricks with what our eyes see and perceive.

Developing a scientific model that maps how these visual hallucinations come about has long been a challenge because scientists don't even fully understand where they come from, let alone the brain changes responsible for their true-to-life manifestations. Some people seem to be triggered by flickering lights while others experience these strange visual journeys as a result of taking drugs – and yet, at the same time, others who take the same drugs don't experience this. A single, common link behind hallucinations, in other words, has been largely indiscernible.

But for the very first time, researchers have come up with a model that they believe could eventually lead to improvements in the way mental health patients are treated, including those with varying forms of dementia who experience hallucinations as a routine part of their symptoms. Published in the journal eLife, the paper highlights a new visual technique that works across the board to induce hallucinations in nearly everyone, revealing a specific area of the brain known as the visual cortex that processes visual information where hallucinations begin.

Using a flickering white light against a black backdrop, the UNSW team was able to cause a group of healthy volunteers to experience the exact same visual hallucination -- the appearance of gray blobs moving around a circle -- which allowed them to trace back the precise brain processes that resulted in this uniform experience. They now know that alterations to the visual cortex are at the root of these hallucinations, and the next step is to investigate how this newfound understanding can improve treatment in psychiatric patients.

"We have known for more than 100 years that flickering light can cause almost anyone to experience a hallucination," says associate professor Joel Pearson from UNSW's School of Psychology. "However, the unpredictability, complexity, and personal nature of these hallucinations make them difficult to measure scientifically. Previous studies have typically relied on drawings and verbal descriptions, but these don't provide us with a way to precisely identify the mechanisms in our brain[s] that cause hallucinations."

Findings could help thwart six trillion dollar mental health care cost increases
Previous studies have evaluated the mysteriously hallucinogenic experience from an ophthalmological perspective, revealing more about why they occur in patients with eye disease. But this is the first study to show why they occur generally, a landmark discovery that could help many a psychiatric patient find relief.

With the World Economic Forum predicting mental health care cost increases of more than six trillion dollars over the next 15 years, the findings couldn't be more relevant. Gaining a better understanding of how the visual cortex works will also help scientists to better explain normal human consciousness, and how humans continuously perceive the world around them.

"Not everyone who gets Parkinson's has hallucinations," Pearson adds. "If we can use these models to study their hallucinations, we can find out what might be causing them, and hopefully learn more about other symptoms that accompany natural hallucinogenic states. It will help inform us about what is happening pathologically in the brain during hallucinations, and ultimately help us develop new treatments."




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