Can Psychedelics Really Help Fight Addiction And Depression?

By Victoria Kim 06/14/18

New research explored whether psychedelics can "rewire the brain" and potentially cure a number of ailments. 

abstract illustration of the human mind

New research reinforces the idea of psychedelics’ potential to treat depression, substance use disorder and more, according to Science Daily.

“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 of the University of California, Davis.

When a person is experiencing depression, anxiety, substance use disorder or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), their neurites are affected. Neurites facilitate communication between neurons by bridging the gap between two neurons at the synapse, the point of communication. (Neurites become axons and dendrites.)

However, when a person is suffering from any of the above, their neurites are not as active. “One of the hallmarks of depression is that the neurites in the prefrontal cortex—a key brain region that regulates emotion, mood, and anxiety—those neurites tend to shrivel up,” said Olson.

But the research, published in the journal Cell Reports, observed that the psychedelics tested—LSD, DMT, MDMA, DOI (an amphetamine)— had the opposite effect.

Instead, they promoted neurite growth, increasing both the density of dendritic spines and the density of synapses. In other words, the psychedelics had a positive effect on the brain’s neural plasticity, by making neurons more likely to branch out and connect with one another, according to Science Daily.

The research observed these effects in rats and flies, but Olson and his team predict that the psychedelics will have the same effects in humans. 

“These are some of the most powerful compounds known to affect brain function, it’s very obvious to me that we should understand how they work,” said Olson.

The findings offer a greater variety of potential antidepressant therapies. Previously, ketamine has shown promise in treating depression and suicidal ideation.

According to Science Daily, some of the psychedelics tested in Olson’s research, including LSD, were even more effective than ketamine in promoting neural plasticity.

“Ketamine is no longer our only option. 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,” said Olson.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr