Reflect On: What is it about these altered states that cause such profound changes in the brain within such a short window of time?
In recent years, many psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, DMT, and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) have been able to shake off some of their stigma and bad reputation as scientists have discovered their promising results for the treatment of a variety of mental health disorders. Even ketamine, a common tranquillizer, often used as a party drug has been found to be able to treat cases of treatment-resistant depression, with the effects lasting long after the treatment has ended. Obviously, there would be protocols and dosages to follow that a health professional within the field would know about, this doesn’t mean we should start ingesting psychedelic drugs at will.
New research has been able to show that the way that psychedelics repair the brain is similar to how ketamine can repair the brain. This could signify the beginning of a class of fast-acting drugs to treat a wide array of mental health disorders from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction. A paper which was recently published in the journal Cell Reports noted how a team of researchers showed evidence that psychedelic drugs can induce structural changes in nerve cells, this is also known as neuroplasticity, this could help repair brain dysfunction and aid those suffering from mood and anxiety disorders.
“Psychedelics are some of the most powerful compounds known to impact brain function so I was very interested to know what their mechanisms of action are,” David Olson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine at UC Davis and the corresponding author on the study, tells Inverse.
This paper merely adds to a large growing body of psychedelic neuroscience research by showing some of the direct changes in the brain while under the influence of psychedelic substances.
Experiments were conducted on cultured rat neurons as well as on the brains of fruit flies and rats. Olson and his colleagues were able to find that LSD, DMT, and DOI actually increased the number of dendrites (branches) in nerve cells, increased the density of dendritic spines and increased the number of synapses, which are the functional connection between neurons. These findings certainly suggest that psychedelics absolutely do induce structural changes to the brain, which is why Olson believes they are so effective at treating mental illness.
“The structure of neurons affects their function, and in the case of a lot of neuropsychiatric diseases, particularly mood and anxiety disorders, these are characterized by an atrophy of neurons in the prefrontal cortex, a key brain region that regulates emotion, fear, and reward,” says Olson. “So if we can find compounds that promote the growth of those neurons we might be able to repair the circuits are damaged in those diseases.”
The prefrontal cortex helps control the other areas of the brain that are involved in fear, anxiety, and reward. This is a critical region for the treatment of depression, PTSD and substance abuse disorders.
Olson and the co-authors of this study aren’t only interested in using psychedelics to treat patients. They want to be able to use psychedelic compounds as tools to dig deeper into the biochemical signalling pathways that lead to the neuroplasticity observed in this study. Being able to identify the specific ways in which psychedelic substances act on the nervous system, Olson and his colleagues hope to be able to develop a new generation of drugs that can emulate the same, long-lasting effects of ketamine and other psychedelic substances, but without the potential for abuse or other challenging experiences.
“That’s the ultimate goal: to use psychedelics as inspiration for better medicine,” Olson says.
There are intentions to treat people using the same processes that the psychedelic substances use, but without the psychedelic effects, but, if these substances already work, wouldn’t it be better to just learn how to work with them and navigate the experiences? One might be worried about a ‘bad trip’ on something like psilocybin, the active component in magic mushrooms, but research has shown that Having A Bad Trip On Shrooms an Actually Improve Your Well-Being. Perhaps, rather than just the substance itself that is providing the healing of the brain, it is the experiences that come along with the psychedelic experience and having to look at your life fro man objective point of view and face any darkness that comes along with it.
This is just one glimpse of the neuronal changes induced by psychedelic substances, more research will still need to be done to find out the long-term effects on brain function.
“Plasticity is not universally a good thing. We were hoping to induce plasticity in the prefrontal cortex, which can be potentially useful for treating mood and anxiety disorders, but promoting plasticity in other parts of the brain, like the amygdala can induce anxiety,” says Olson. “It’s very unclear what the risks are right now.”
Regardless, this research is promising and we are seeing more and more research in this realm emerge, especially with the work of the people at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS.) Who recently spearheaded the movement to get MDMA assisted psychotherapy an approved treatment method by the FDA for those struggling with PTSD. These times are changing.