Stroke is one of the leading causes of death and disability worldwide, with ischemic stroke being the most common type, accounting for over 80% of all cases. It’s a medical emergency that requires immediate attention, often resulting in long-term damage to the brain and loss of function.
Traditional treatment options for ischemic stroke include thrombolytic therapy, antiplatelet and anticoagulant drugs, and surgery. However, these treatments are not always effective and can have significant side effects.
Recently, psychedelic therapy has emerged as a potential treatment for ischemic stroke, with promising results in preclinical studies. These findings are important on their own, but today’s article is particularly special for one other reason.
In a beautiful twist of fate, we were connected to Jake McWink– a ski-loving Colorado man who suffered an ischemic stroke at age 29, leaving him with slurred speech, temporary paralysis in his right leg, and no control over the right side of his body.
As if that weren’t enough, this all happened abroad, while on a trip to Japan, with the person who would one day come to be his husband. Now, 4 years later, Jake says he’s 98-99% recovered, and our interview with him confidently reveals the same.
Statistically, Jake had the odds stacked against him, yet somehow, by some way of life, the odds aligned ever in his favor. Early on in his recovery, Jake made the choice to explore psychedelic medicine as an alternative form of rehabilitative therapy. That’s why today, we’re reviewing the current research on psychedelic drugs for treatment of ischemic stroke.
If you’ve been with us long enough, you know that if there’s a true, promising role for psychedelics in the world of mental or physical health, we’re doing a complete rundown on it– That’s current research findings, mechanisms, benefits, risks, and of course, anecdotal reports.
Soon, you’ll come to know Jake’s story very intimately. But first, we’re explaining exactly what psychedelic therapy is, reviewing clinical studies, and taking a deep dive into how science can suggest the treatment efficacy of psychedelic therapy for ischemic stroke rehabilitation.
What is Psychedelic Therapy?
Psychedelic therapy involves the use of psychedelic substances, such as psilocybin, LSD, and DMT, in a controlled setting under the guidance of an experienced facilitator. The therapy typically consists of preparation and integration sessions, as well as in-person ceremonial support.
During the psychedelic ceremony, journeyers are encouraged to explore their inner thoughts and feelings, with the facilitator providing support as needed. The intention of psychedelic therapy is to facilitate a transformative experience that can lead to lasting positive changes in the journeyer’s mental health.
Psychedelic therapy has been used to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s shown promising results in clinical trials, with many participants reporting significant improvements in their symptoms.
However, the use of psychedelic therapy to treat physical conditions, such as ischemic stroke, is a relatively new area of research. Psychedelic research into many medical conditions is still understandably limited. As the industry continues to develop, we’ll see far larger, more diversified studies that examine the therapeutic applications of psychedelic medicine.
For now, we’ll review what we do know about how psychedelic experiences can catalyze deep-seated change that transcends even our highest known intentions. How can psychedelic therapy treat the secondary mental and physical effects of ischemic stroke? Let’s get into it.
How Psychedelics Can Treat Stroke: The Physical Dimension
First, a brief overview of ischemic strokes– They occur when a blood clot blocks a blood vessel in the brain, depriving the brain of oxygen and nutrients, which often leads to varying degrees of brain damage and loss of function.
Traditional treatments for ischemic stroke, such as thrombolytic therapy and surgery, aim to restore blood flow to the affected area of the brain. However, these treatments are not always effective and as we mentioned, can have unpleasant side effects.
Recent research has suggested that psychedelic therapy may be able to help treat ischemic stroke by promoting neuroplasticity, reducing inflammation, and improving blood flow to the brain. Thus, our search calls us to take a deeper dive into the science behind the facts.
How Psychedelics Affect: Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize and form new neural connections in response to injury or changes in the environment. This process is critical for recovery after a stroke, as it allows the brain to compensate for the damage caused by the stroke and regain lost function.
Several studies have shown that psychedelic substances, such as psilocybin and LSD, can increase neuroplasticity in the brain. For example, a 2021 study published in Frontiers in Pharmacology found that psilocybin increased the formation of new neural connections in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is critical for learning and memory.
The study focuses on the cellular and molecular effects of psychedelics after single and repeated administration and their links to behavioral effects. The review analyzed 20 preclinical and clinical studies, demonstrating that a single administration of a psychedelic rapidly induces changes in plasticity mechanisms on a molecular, neuronal, synaptic, and dendritic level.
Repeated administration of a psychedelic directly stimulated neurogenesis and increased BDNF mRNA levels up to a month after treatment. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein which is essential for neuroplasticity.
In addition, a 2018 study, findings showed that a combination of psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”) and mirror visual-feedback (MVF) could completely eliminate phantom-limb pain (PLP) in a patient who had lost their leg.
The patient experienced organized sensations in their phantom limb when a volunteer touched their own foot in corresponding locations, and the use of MVF and “phantom massage” provided some relief. However, when psilocybin was paired with MVF, the effects were synergistic, resulting in the complete elimination of PLP and a reduction in paroxysmal episodes.
This is hypothesized to be due to psychedelics’ ability to facilitate the “unlearning” of paralysis via 5HTR-dependent changes in neuroplasticity. This could have serious implications for the treatment of stroke-induced paralysis, as well as other conditions that affect movement and sensation.
Another study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2019, investigated the effects of ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew used in traditional South American medicine, on BDNF levels in healthy volunteers.
The researchers found that ayahuasca administration led to significant increases in BDNF levels, as well as improvements in depression symptoms, and in mood and cognition. Again, because BDNF is essential for neuroplasticity, significant increases in these proteins indicate a significant increase in neuroplasticity.
How Psychedelics Affect: Neuroinflammation
These conclusions were also suggested by a 2020 study, which investigated the potential neuroprotective effects of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), an endogenous ligand of the Sigma 1 receptor (Sig-1R), following ischemia-reperfusion injury in the rat brain.
The results showed that DMT-treated rats had a lower ischemic lesion volume and better functional recovery compared to the control group. The expression levels of proteins involved in apoptosis, neuroplasticity, and inflammatory regulation were also assessed.
It was found that DMT treatment led to lower APAF1 expression and higher BDNF levels, indicating its pro-neurotrophic effect. Additionally, the treatment led to decreased TNF-α, IL1-β, and IL-6 expressions and increased IL-10 expression, suggesting its anti-inflammatory potential.
Inflammation is a key driver of brain damage after a stroke, and reducing inflammation can help limit the extent of the damage. The study concluded that DMT administration can have a neuroprotective effect on the ischemic brain injury, presumably through a combined anti-apoptotic, pro-neurotrophic, and anti-inflammatory treatment effect.
The findings of a 2021 study also agree that DMT may represent a new class of anti-inflammatory drugs that can help treat neuroinflammation after ischemic stroke. The study explains that modulation of the inflammatory response, particularly through cytokines, may be the next frontier in stroke recovery.
Psychedelics produce a unique pattern of cytokine expression favoring anti-allergic conditions, targeting many of the pathologic immune responses without exposing the body to the risks of total immune suppression.
DMT acts on 5-hydroxytryptamine and S1 receptors to modulate inflammation by reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines and increasing the secretion of anti-inflammatory cytokines.
How Psychedelics Affect: Brain Complexity
This 2021 study also indicates that psychedelics, specifically psilocybin and LSD, can increase the complexity of brain activity by increasing the amount of entropy in the brain. Entropy is a measure of the amount of disorder or randomness in a system, and in the brain, it’s a measure of the number of possible states or configurations that the neurons can take on.
The researchers found that LSD increased the entropy of brain activity in a region of the brain called the thalamus, which is involved in processing sensory information and regulating consciousness. This increase in entropy suggests that the brain is exploring a wider range of possible states, which could very easily lead to more creative thinking and enhanced cognitive flexibility.
In the context of ischemic stroke, increasing brain complexity through the use of psychedelics could help to restore lost cognitive function. The brain is a highly adaptable organ, and it has the ability to rewire itself and create new connections between neurons in response to changes in the environment or injury.
By increasing the complexity of brain activity, psychedelics could potentially help to promote this rewiring process and improve cognitive function in stroke patients.
How Psychedelics Affect: Blood Flow to The Brain
As we mentioned, ischemic stroke is a condition where the blood flow to the brain is blocked, which can result in brain cell death. In a 2015 study, researchers found that serotonergic psychedelics, like psilocybin, can increase blood flow to the brain by changing how the brain cells communicate with blood vessels. This phenomenon is called neurovascular coupling.
When psilocin enters the brain, it binds to certain receptors called 5-HT2A receptors that are found on specific types of brain cells. This binding can have different effects on the signaling of these cells, which can either make them more or less active.
The cortical inhibitory interneurons in the brain can make blood vessels in the brain bigger (vasodilation) or smaller (vasoconstriction), providing a mechanism by which reduced synaptic activity may actually be associated with increased cerebral blood flow (CBF).
Psilocin (the active compound in ‘magic’ mushrooms) can also affect 5-HT1B/1D receptors found in the blood vessels in the brain, which can have a direct ‘non-neuronal’ role in mediating blood flow.
This research shows that psilocin can increase blood flow to the brain by altering this communication between brain cells and blood vessels, potentially reducing brain damage and preventing the loss of brain function associated with ischemic stroke.
How Psychedelics Can Treat Stroke: The Emotional Dimension
Psychedelic therapy can also have incredible psychological benefits for stroke patients. A stroke can be a traumatic event, and many patients experience anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result.
Psychedelics has been shown to be effective in treating these conditions, with many reporting significant improvements in their symptoms after just one session. One of the ways in which psychedelic therapy may help patients with PTSD is by promoting emotional regulation. PTSD is characterized by hyperarousal, avoidance, and intrusive thoughts and memories.
Psychedelic therapy has helped many people regulate their emotions and reduce their symptoms by facilitating a cathartic, transformative experience that allows them to confront and process traumatic memories and emotions.
Psychedelic therapy can also help stroke patients by improving their sense of well-being and quality of life. A stroke can be a debilitating condition that can significantly impact a person’s ability to perform everyday activities and engage in social interactions.
Psychedelic therapy has been shown to improve mood, increase feelings of connection and empathy, and promote a sense of purpose and meaning in life. These effects can be particularly beneficial for stroke patients, who may be struggling to adapt to a new way of life after their stroke.
Jake’s Psychedelic-Assisted Stroke Recovery Story
In February 2019, at the young age of 29, Jake McWink’s life changed drastically when he suffered a right Cerebellar Stroke from a right Vertebral Artery Dissection. A week earlier, Jake had been involved in a skiing accident in Japan.
Though he didn’t present any immediate injuries other than a twisted neck and a cut shin, little did Jake know that his physical stability was on the clock, or as he puts it– he was “a ticking time bomb”.
Before we take you on a trip through the last 4 years of Jake’s life, we want to remind readers that no two psychedelic experiences are exactly the same. What works for one person, may not work for another in the same way. Jake’s story shouldn’t be interpreted as medical advice, but rather a resource that helps inform your knowledge on the healing potential of psychedelic medicine.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, you can’t know Jake McWink without first understanding the radiating energy that he exudes. From one, hour-long call with Jake and a handful of email exchanges, we were very quickly able to recognize the light-full, love-full spirit that he embodies.
Despite the fact that he’s undergone a traumatic medical event which required intense rehabilitative care, Jake’s openness to experience and intrapersonal connection has only bloomed and blossomed over the last several years.
In fact, Jake attributes much of his recovery to the optimistic outlook and healthy internal locus of control that he chose to adopt early on in his journey. He says, “I think that my positive mindset is really the key thing that got me here. And I wonder if psychedelics were a key for really leaning into that.”
Nine days after the skiing accident, what began as neck pain turned into sudden diplopia (double vision), shaking of his right arm and leg, dizziness, and nausea. He was rushed to a hospital in a small town outside of Hong Kong, where he spent five days until he could walk unassisted.
Jake had lost control of his right side, had temporary paralysis in his right leg, and slurred speech. Honk Kong doctors wanted him to stay there for two months under observation, but Jake knew he had to recover quickly and get back to his life in the United States.
He sought the help of some amazing doctors in Denver, who emphasized that his recovery was contingent on creating new neural pathways. About 3 weeks post-stroke, after doctors told him that there were only three avenues for treatment– occupational, speech, and physical therapy, Jake decided to begin microdosing psychedelics, and subsequently, macrodosing.
“I had read the Michael Pollan book, How to Change Your Mind, and it was like, okay, well here are these things that clearly seem to be helping establish new neural pathways or are helping facilitate that. So it seemed logical, albeit risky”, Jake tells us.
At first, he didn’t want anyone to know that he was using psychedelics to aid his recovery. He underwent speech and occupational therapy while continuing to microdose on a quarterly basis with LSD and psilocybin.
“If something went wrong, that’s bad news, it was a gamble. But from my perspective, my identity was compromised. I was in a situation where my ability to interface with the world both verbally and physically, was completely compromised.
That was essentially what my life sentence was going to be. And my options for improving were to use three modalities that for me, didn’t make sense for what the cause was. So therefore, I, at that point, was completely at the bottom of the barrel.
I was willing to throw anything in the kitchen sink at this problem, and I at least was going to throw the kitchen sink in that (psychedelic medicine) direction”, says Jake McWink.
One month post-stroke, Jake reports that the dizziness and nausea had resolved, but he was still experiencing clumsiness with fine motor movements and more fatigue than usual. Additionally, he found himself needing to more actively focus on word pronunciation.
He spent the next two months in the mountains engaging in activities that aimed to rebuild his fine motor and coordination skills, such as hiking, snowshoeing and building lego sets.
Slowly but surely, Jake began to see significant improvements in his condition. In May of 2019, within three months of his stroke, Jake received the medical clearance to return to work, and after a year, he was back to about 90-95% of his pre-stroke capabilities.
Jake says, “My recovery was pretty, pretty pronounced. And I wasn’t, say, in extraordinary physical shape. It’s not that I was at the 1 percentile of anything, and yet for me, my recovery has been well above a one percentile bit– If that makes sense.”
Today, Jake estimates that he is around 98-99% recovered. He attributes much of his recovery to the use of psychedelics, which he believes helped him create new neural pathways and repair the damage caused by the stroke– and the research we previously presented is in complete support of his theory.
“I think that there’s another piece of this that maybe doesn’t have anything to do with (neurological) rewiring or all of that. Maybe it’s just simply that it gives your body the space it needs to then activate self healing.
Very similar to when we put a Band-Aid on a cut, the Band-Aid is not doing the fixing, but it’s providing an environment for the self healing intelligence to activate in our bodies. These are wonderful machines and they know how to fix everything.” – Jake McWink
Jake didn’t get any treatment for his stroke. He didn’t receive Tissue Plasminogen Activator (TPA) while in Hong Kong. In fact, he only came to get aspirin two days after being hospitalized.
He adds, “I didn’t get anything (pharmaceutical treatment), and yet, I’m back to 100%. So where did that healing come from? That healing came from my body. So what was it that allowed my body to figure it out? That’s why it feels like somehow the psychedelics were involved.”
While Jake’s story may sound unusual, his experience is not unique. As we’ve discussed, there’s been increasing interest in the use of psychedelics to treat a range of mental health conditions.
However, Jake’s experience highlights another potential benefit of these substances: their ability to aid in physical recovery. We’ve heard psychedelic-assisted recovery stories from chronic pain sufferers, traumatic brian injury victims, and even from people with fibromyalgia. Like many of those accounts, Jake’s story reflects a very intentional journey of inner resourcing and resiliency.
Jake tells us, “In those moments of doubt where the network around you doesn’t seem to support the potential insider curiosity that you have, I think it would be important to honor your curiosity and allow that curiosity to take you in that direction. Honor those questions and allow yourself to be open to the potential uncomfortable answers that those questions could create.
Beyond that, Jake emphasizes that he was also supported by a wonderful team of doctors and that he was fortunate in the position he had to be supported by “an absolutely exquisite, exquisite life partner.” “He just blows me away and I could not be more fortunate to have him. He was essential in that recovery”, Jake shares.
We close off the conversation as Jakes notes that “Yoga was an important aspect to the recovery as well.” He found value in engaging in a Baptist yoga regimen. “So that might be just another thing– having exercises that aim to connect the mind, body, and spirit.”
As we’ve come to understand, the potential use of psychedelics for treating ischemic stroke is supported by preliminary studies that have shown promising results, with LSD and psilocybin demonstrating neuroprotective effects, enhancing brain plasticity, and improving functional recovery.
Although all of the mechanisms behind these effects are not yet fully understood, the possibility of using psychedelics as a treatment for ischemic stroke offers hope for patients and their families who are affected by this devastating condition.
Despite being told there were limited treatment options available, Jake took a risk and turned to macrodosing and microdosing psychedelics. The results were remarkable, and he believes that psychedelics played a significant role in his recovery.
The research gathered today proposes that psychedelics could offer a new avenue of treatment for ischemic stroke by promoting neuroplasticity, reducing inflammation, and protecting brain cells from damage. However, there is still much to learn about the mechanisms by which these drugs promote recovery and the most effective ways to use them in treatment.
By continuing to invest in the research and exploration of this exciting new avenue of treatment, we can work towards better outcomes for stroke patients and an improved quality of life for all. With the potential for such a significant impact on stroke treatment, the use of psychedelics in stroke recovery is an inspiring and motivating development in the field of medicine.
Explore How it Feels to be Connected
If you or someone you know is experiencing the aftermath of a traumatic accident or stroke, we extend our complete empathy for you and your current situation. Any event that has such an all-reaching, upending effect on daily functioning, can be not only physically impactful, but also mentally and emotionally disruptive.
If you feel called to explore the potential benefits of psychedelic medicine for the secondary effects of you or a loved one’s stroke, we empower you to book a consultation with our experienced psychedelic concierges.
Not only will they answer any questions you have about therapeutic psychedelic experiences, but they’ll also get you connected to our pre-vetted network of psychedelic facilitators who are located around the country, ready and able to service your healing journey from preparation through integration.
Explore how it feels to be connected by heading over to our resources page and browsing our extensive bibliotheca of informative articles, just like this one. Well friends, that concludes our chat on the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for stroke treatment. As always, safe and mindful journeying!