Contrary to popular belief, psychedelic drugs seems to be able to do much more than what it’s normal recreational uses intended for. Professor David E. Olson of University of California, Davis conducted a study that explored how psychedelics affect the neuronal structure and function. Some of the studies included studying compounds such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), Psilocin (magic mushrooms), N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT, from ayahuasca) and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA or ecstacy). Most people will associate these compounds with negative stigma, however, Olson’s research suggests that the drugs may actually be able to alter the structure of the brain in addition to affecting the brain function, With that being said, there are changes within the neuronal structure which are essential in the way our brain is wired thus affecting the way we feel, think and behave.
Before Olson had conducted his research and studies, there have been other implications and studies that have also shown promising results of how drugs may be able to affect neural structure. One such drug was ketamine. Ketamine is a type of drug that was used as a dissociative anesthetic. The studies on ketamine have suggested that it may be one of the fastest acting antidepressants as of right now.
So how exactly are these drugs and compounds able to affect the neural structure? Professor Olson explains that neurons are like trees, with their dendrites acting as the “large branches” and the dendritic spines as “small branches”. The dendritic spines or small branches may have synapses or “leaves”. When Professor Olson’s team grew neurons in a dish, they fed them psychedelic compounds which resulted in the neurons growing more dendritic branches, dendritic spines, and formed more connections with neighboring neurons. This proved that the psychedelic compounds were able to alter neural structure through the development of more complex structures.
With further exploration, scientists now know that depression is not limited to a chemical imbalance within patients but is more complex due to its involvement with structural changes which can alter due to emotion, anxiety, memory and reward. Depression is often associated with the neurons in the prefrontal cortex which controls anxiety. Depression affects the branches and shrivel up the spines which disconnect it from the neurons in the brain. One theory on why ketamine is effective on depression is that it allows for a rapid regrowth of the arbors and spines. Additionally, other psychedelics have also shown the promises of of treating neuropsychiatric diseases.
In many cases, psychedelics act as a mind-manifesting drug by activating the 5-HT2A receptors. They have also been found to be able to impact neuronal structure. Professor Olson and his team has coined the term “psychoplastogen” to refer to compounds that may have the potential for treating various mental and brain diseases. Olson and his team experiments with flies and rodents and found that the psychedelics and ketamine actually encouraged the growth of branches and spines therefore satisfying the theory that the compounds work by activating mTOR, a protein associated with cell growth. There are speculations that through further studies, Olson and his team may be able to engineer compounds that produce therapeutic effects on neuronal growth. Additionally, psychedelics have been found to produce long lasting effects on the brain function that are often positive which suggests that the psychoplastogens may be able to repair circuits that are damaged.
Overall, the use of psychedelics and ketamine continues to surprise us with their potential to produce therapeutic effects. Scientists and clinicians also continue to publish and administer studies and papers that further support the use of psychedelics and ketamine. Yet, we shouldn’t be too quick to embrace the two. Although psychedelics and ketamine promote the neuronal growth during development, there may be negative consequences from the interference of the normal process of the neural circuits being refined. Additionally, there are more studies that need to be conducted in order to evaluate how these psychoplastogens will affect the aging brain. Therefore, there are many reasons to believe that these psychoplastogens have promising potentials but scientists such as Professor Olson are further exploring the way psychoplastogens play a role in the nervous system.