For decades, illegal psychedelic drugs such as LSD and ‘magic’ psilocybin mushrooms were demonised due to their perceived harmful effects on mental health. However, a new age in science has dawned, bringing with it new research about these substances and their actual effects on our psyches – as well as their potential to treat conditions like depression, anxiety and schizophrenia instead of worsening them. It seems that these days, everything that was once frowned upon; from video games to online casino games and now psychedelic drugs, are proving to have some rather surprising benefits when examined a little more closely.
Psychedelics work by altering your perception of the world around you, at least in the short term. New studies are now showing that they are also capable of altering the structure of our brains, impacting the way that they process information, which can also have a directly positive influence on our feelings, thoughts, emotions and behaviour.
Regenerating Neurons with Drug Compounds
A study by David E. Olson, an Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry; Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Medicine; Centre for Neuroscience, at the University of California, has taken a closer look at the effects of psychedelic drugs like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocin (from magic mushrooms), N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT, from ayahuasca) and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, aka ecstasy) on the structure and function of brain neurons. The study actually found that the aforementioned compounds caused brain neurons to grow and regenerate, rather than destroying them like we previously thought.
Olson and his team explained that many diseases, including depression and anxiety disorders, can be characterised by a lack of ‘dendritic branches and spines’ in neurons. The researchers noted that before their study, there were few to no compounds known to have such a rapid and significant effect on the structure of these neurons, with the only known substance being another common street drug, ketamine. By ‘feeding’ neurons psychedelic compounds, the cells reportedly grew more dendritic branches and spines, thereby forming new connections with neighbouring neurons and improving overall brain function and signalling.
A New Understanding of Depression
Another study focusing on ketamine (or NDMA) by Nanxin Li et al found that the drug’s fast-acting effects on depression in treatment-resistant patients could provide a ‘possible new approach to treating mood disorders’. Although the scientists were not able to pinpoint the exact underlying mechanisms of these effects, they did note that there were ‘increased synaptic signalling proteins’ and an increase in dendritic spine synapses in the brains of the rats on which they performed their study.
Studies on ketamine and psychedelic drugs such as mushrooms and LSD have also begun to change scientists’ understanding of depression. No longer can it be considered merely a chemical imbalance in the brain; it’s now clear that mental illnesses are actually far more complex, involving many structural changes in essential neural circuits that regulate our memories, anxieties, emotions and reward centres.
A trademark feature of depression is the atrophy of neurons in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which regulates moods and more. One theory for why ketamine in particular may be an effective treatment is because they are capable of rapidly regrowing the atrophied portions of these neurons, allowing them to reform connections and strengthen their signalling courses.
Safety Evaluations Still Needed
Psychedelics have also shown promise in this area. Ayahuasca, a DMT-containing tea, is known to have strong antidepressant effects that work within a day. Psilocybin, the active chemical in magic mushrooms, can even ease anxiety in terminally ill patients with cancer. MDMA (ecstasy) has been shown to soothe fear in patients with PTSD. Olson’s paper suggests that psychedelic compounds and ketamine may have comparable benefits in the treatment of all of these conditions.
With all this said, researchers still have some concerns about the risks associated with these drugs. More research is needed on what effects these substances could have on growing neurons and ageing brains, such as those belonging to patients with autism or Alzheimer’s disease. Suitable doses also still need to be determined. However, there is clearly potential, and it could be harnessed by science in the near future to treat mental disorders far more effectively than ever thought possible.