Any study that involves milking psychedelic toads and growing tiny brains in a dish can call itself a proper science experiment, and a team of researchers has just made this a reality, publishing their findings in Scientific Reports.
Previous research has shown a hallucinogenic brew from the Amazon called ayahuasca to be an effective treatment for depression, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder, so the authors wanted to investigate how psychedelics affect the brain in order to produce these apparent healing effects.
To do so, they grew human embryonic stem cells for 45 days in order to produce tiny “cerebral organoids”.
These were then treated with a potent hallucinogen called 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT), which is secreted by the Colorado river toad, or Incilius alvarius, as it's known to Romans and scientists.
Dosing these mini-brains with "the toad" altered the expression of 934 different proteins, which produced an enhanced anti-inflammatory response and stimulated neuronal development, in comparison to other organoids treated with ethanol or a control solution.
A group of proteins known as plexins, for example, was upregulated, helping new synapses to form and sparking the formation of new connecting arms between neurons, known as dendrites.
The trippy toad milk also boosted proteins called integrins, which are often seen to be upregulated in patients who respond positively to antidepressants. This could partially explain why psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy appears to be so effective at treating depression.
On top of all this, 5-MeO-DMT downregulated a protein called mGluR5. In previous studies, mice that had been genetically modified to lack this protein showed a decreased tendency to become addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and nicotine, which could suggest a role for psychedelics in the treatment of addiction.
Among the other proteins upregulated by the substance was srGAP, which helps to regulate synaptic plasticity. This refers to the brain’s "flexibility", or its ability to form new neural pathways, and is therefore vital for cognitive function, learning, and memory.
It’s worth noting that miniature lab-grown brains are nowhere nearly as complex as the one you’ve got inside your skull, so while these results provide some fascinating insights into the effects of psychedelics, much more research is needed in order to determine the full impact of these drugs in the brain.