Bryan Johnson laid down on a couch a few weeks ago, when a doctor injected 57.75 milligrams of ketamine into his bloodstream via an intramuscular injection. As the hallucinogen induced a significant brain rewiring and drove Johnson into an altered state, a helmet attached to Johnson’s head monitored what happened next. Johnson was tripping, as our drug-addicted forefathers would say, and a highly sophisticated device was watching the spectacle alongside him.
Researchers have previously seen the brain activity of drug users, but never exactly like this.
Ketamine test volunteers are typically placed inside a large MRI machine in a hospital or laboratory. Ketamine is a chemical that is occasionally used to treat depression but is also a popular recreational drug known as Special K. While trapped in a confined tube and pelted by fluorescent lights, they have hallucinations and attempt to open their third eyes. Because MRIs are costly, time-consuming, and uncomfortable for participants, their usage in this sort of study has been limited. As a result, our understanding of what happens when we’re on drugs has also been limited.
Johnson realized he was working on something that could help. He’s the founder and chief executive officer of a company called Kernel that designs and manufactures brain-scanning helmets.
A Kernel gadget is approximately the size of a bicycle helmet and only takes a few minutes to correctly put on. Johnson wore the helmet for a few days before his trip, during the trip, and for a few days afterward, rather than doing a single ketamine test. And he could do it all while relaxing on a couch, gazing out the window at the Pacific Ocean from a doctor’s office, his company’s headquarters, or his own house.
The before, during, and after data appeared to demonstrate significant changes in Johnson’s brain wiring. There were apparent patterns of strong connections between various regions of his brain prior to the injection.
The Kernel helmet’s images resembled a map of major highways with varied levels of traffic streaming across them. Many of the circuits began to dissolve after around 20 minutes on ketamine. Johnson’s intellect seemed to be quieting down and approaching a meditative state.
Doctors are unsure whether ketamine can help some patients with depression and what it does to the brain in the short and long term. Johnson’s experiment is part of a bigger trial involving roughly 15 patients, which is being undertaken by Kernel and Cybin, a company that is developing psychedelic-based therapeutics.
While the firms won’t share the entire results of their research until later this year, they’re hoping it will provide ground-breaking information on how the brain reacts to ketamine.
This kind of work highlights the intersection of two technology trends. In the United States, researchers now have more freedom to test and study psychedelics for therapeutic purposes. Meanwhile, Kernel is one of a few startups developing brain gadgets, including Elon Musk’s Neuralink Corp. and Synchron Inc.
Johnson’s main goal with Kernel is to allow doctors and humans to obtain health information about their brains in the same way that they can for the rest of their bodies. If you have cardiac problems, for example, doctors can order a battery of tests and suggest therapies based on years of research.
We’ve never had a regime with the brain where you do measurements beforehand, issue a treatment and then measure the results after to see how the treatment is doing, Johnson said. We can bring the same scientific engineering and rigor to the brain that we use for other aspects of our health.
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