Psychedelic party drugs like MDMA and LSD have been the focus of recent studies for their potential ability to treat depression and anxiety.
A promising paper published this week seems to provide the strongest evidence yet in that direction.
Carried out by a team of researchers mainly from the University of California, Davis, the study published this week in Cell Reports hints at the effectiveness of these drugs at repairing the brain’s overall function.
“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 lead author David Olson, assistant professor of the Department of Chemistry at UC Davis.
“What is really exciting is that psychedelics seem to mirror the effects produced by ketamine.”
To test out the hypothesis, the scientists exposed lab-cultured neurons from humans, rats, and other animals to various psychedelic substances. These include tryptamine psilocin (one of the psychoactive ingredients found in magic mushrooms), MDMA, and the ergoline LSD.
The neurons used were taken from the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain believed to be vital in the development of certain mental malaise.
The researchers noted that the psychedelics encouraged the growth of new dendrites, as well as increased the density of small protrusions called dendritic spines.
The tests also showed how new connections, – synapses – between neurons multiplied. These effects are similar to those seen in tests on living animals.
The authors say that overall, the experiments point out that these substances have the ability to improve the brain’s plasticity, which includes its ability to repair itself from damage induced by events such as trauma or stress.
These effects are similar to the changes seen in people who take ketamine, the anaesthetic and recreational drug that in recent years has been reintroduced as an experimental antidepressant. Research on it suggests that its lightning fast effects can help diminish suicidal thoughts.
“Ketamine is no longer our only option,” Olson states, “Our work demonstrates that 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.”
The results are so impressive, the team is already looking into how to develop safe analogs to these psychedelics, which some have the potential for addiction and abuse. The researchers are even pushing to rebrand these drugs as “psychoplastogens.”