Psychedelic drugs such as LSD and ecstasy not only produce mind-altering effects but could physically change your brain, a new study has shown.
Experiments on rats and flies showed that the drugs cause structural and functional changes in brain cells – suggesting the same happens in humans.
Researchers from the University of California, Davis, found that the drugs make neurons more likely to branch out and communicate with each other.
Even after a small dose of the drug, the effects lasted for as long as 24 hours.
These structural changes suggest pills based on psychedelics could repair the circuits that malfunction in conditions that affect mood and anxiety.
The team says the discovery could lead to the development of better treatments for mental health disorders including depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Psychedelic drugs such as LSD and ecstasy can cause nerve cells to sprout more branches and spines, according to a new study from the University of California, Davis. In this false-colored image, the rainbow-colored cell was treated with LSD compared to a control cell in blue
Depression has long been believed to be associated with an imbalance in brain chemicals. However, recent studies have shown that structural changes also play a role.
One 2017 study from Harvard Medical School found that the hippocampus – which is responsible for processing memory and emotional responses – is nine to 13 percent smaller in those suffering from depression.
The study’s authors explain that this doesn’t mean neurons die off in depressed people. Instead, neurites, the sections that bridge out and connect to other neurons, retract.
These tiny fragments, known as axons and dendrites, facilitate communication at synapses, or connections between brain cells.
Senior author Dr David Olson, an assistant professor of chemistry at UC Davis, explained that shriveled up neurites in the prefrontal cortex – a key brain region that regulates emotion, mood, and anxiety – is ‘one of the hallmarks’ of depression.
These brain alterations also appear in cases of anxiety, addiction and PTSD.
‘People have long assumed that psychedelics are capable of altering neuronal structure, but this is the first study that clearly and unambiguously supports that hypothesis,’ he said.
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The psychedelic drug is a banned substance, in the same category as heroin and LSD by both American and British law enforcement agencies.
But research at NYU Langone Medical Center has shown controlled use of the drug (officially called ‘psilocybin’) brought relief from distress to 80 percent of their 29 patients.
Unlike previous studies, the participants experienced no serious negative effects, such as hospitalization or more serious mental health conditions.
The landmark study was endorsed by 11 different editorials from leading experts in psychiatry, addiction and palliative care.
The researchers, led by Dr Olson, specifically analyzed ecstasy, LSD, and hallucinogenic designer drugs DMT and DOI.
‘These are some of the most powerful compounds known to affect brain function. It is very obvious to me we should understand how they work,’ Dr Olson said.
In past research, Dr Olson and his team showed that doses of DMT helped rats overcome fear to the memory of a mild electric shock, which could help design treatments for PTSD.
In this study, rats were treated with a single dose of DMT, a psychedelic compound found in the Amazonian herbal tea known as ayahuasca.
While the drug was eliminated within an hour, the ‘rewiring’ effects on the brain could be seen 24 hours later, demonstrating that these effects last for some time.
Dr Olson compared the effects of the psychedelics to ketamine, another illicit drug which has appeared to be a breakthrough psychiatric treatment for severe depression, relieving patients’ moods much faster than traditional antidepressants.
The researchers found that many psychedelics had equal or greater on neural plasticity, or brain growth.
The psychedelics made both dendritic spines and synapses denser. Some, including LSD, were even more potent and effective than ketamine in boosting the growth of neurites.
This images shows the effects of three psychedelics drugs – DMT, LSD, amphetamines (DOI) -and one control (VEH) on neurons in the prefrontal cortex showing that they promote growth
‘People have long assumed that psychedelics are capable of altering neuronal structure, but this is the first study that clearly and unambiguously supports that hypothesis,’ Dr Olson said.
Currently, clinical trials are in progress for a ketamine nasal spray that has been shown to quickly relieve depression and suicidal thoughts within hours.
‘The rapid effects of ketamine on mood and plasticity are truly astounding,’ said Dr Olson. ‘The big question we were trying to answer was whether or not other compounds are capable of doing what ketamine does.’
Dr Olson said he doesn’t expect psychedelics to become prescription drugs for depression but said ‘a compound inspired by psychedelics’ has that possibility.
‘Ketamine is no longer our only option,’ he said.
‘Our work demonstrates there are a number of distinct chemical scaffolds capable of promoting plasticity like ketamine, providing additional opportunities for medicinal chemists to develop safer and more effective alternatives.’