Psychedelics Could Help Treat Depression By Physically Restructuring The Brain

Psychedelic drugs such as LSD and Ayahuasca change the structure of nerve cells, causing them to sprout new branches and spines. Calvin and Joanne Ly

It’s no secret that psychedelics produce mind-bending effects and hallucinations. What is far less known is how these drugs can physically alter the brain. Illustrating their findings in a new study published in Cell Reports, scientists at the University of California, Davis believe they now have a better idea, and it could help to treat common mood disorders affecting millions of people around the world.

Researchers tested the effects of psychedelic compounds on neurons grown in a test tube as well as those in the brains of rats and flies. They found the compounds, specifically DOI, DMT, and LSD, caused changes in brain cells (neurons) while increasing the number of connections between them. Ketamine has previously been shown to have this effect, but LSD was found to be even more effective. 

The team believe these changes have the potential to fight depression, anxiety, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

In this false-colored image, the rainbow-colored cell was treated with LSD compared to a control cell in blue. Calvin and Joanne Ly

Recent studies show that depression, for example, manifests as a “neural circuit disorder”. Throughout the brain, the parts of neurons that project out to connect different regions, called neurites, allow brain cells to talk to each other. When depression strikes, tiny neurites in the prefrontal cortex – our fear response and reward regulator – shrivel up and produce “one of the hallmarks” of depression as well as some cases of addiction, anxiety, 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,” said senior author David E. Olson in a statement. “What is really exciting is that psychedelics seem to mirror the effects produced by ketamine.”

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