We’ve known that psychedelic drugs like psilocybin mushrooms and LSD show a lot of promise in addressing some of the world’s most widespread mental disorders for a while now. They can treat treatment-resistant depression, PTSD , and even terminally-ill patients’ end-of-life anxieties ..
What the scientists do not know is why psychedelics work so well in treating such disorders. Luckily, some new research by an international team of neuroscientists sheds light on this trippy mystery.
The researchers published a study on Monday in the journal Nature Neuroscience that showed that LSD and psilocin (the primary molecule in magic mushrooms) bind to a specific receptor in the brains of laboratory mice–causing an antidepressant effect as a result. Since the mechanism specifically works to reduce depression, the study’s authors believe that it could lead to the development of drugs to treat depression in humans without hallucinations.
“The study’s researchers wrote that the hallucinogenic properties of psychedelics restrict their clinical use, since their administration must be restricted to settings requiring intensive monitoring. They added that their research suggests “that the antidepressant and plasticity-promoting effects of psychedelics may be dissociable from their hallucinogenic effects.”
Today, more than 17 million U.S. adults and 2 million children suffer from clinical depression. Roughly 10 to 30 percent of those patients don’t respond to traditional antidepressant medication either–resulting in treatment resistant disorders.
Enter psychedelics. Drugs like ketamine and LSD have been shown to be effective in treating depression, PTSD, and other disorders. These drugs can cause severe hallucinations, which is a major problem. Patients undergoing psychoedelic treatment must be closely monitored by medical professionals in an environment that is highly regulated.
This is a major barrier to the majority of patients. If the drug could be taken at home, without having to worry about tripping, it would allow millions of patients access.
Broadly, scientists know that psychedelics encourage two processes that benefit mental health: neuroplasticity, which is when new neural connections are made in the brain; and neurogenesis, which is the formation of brain cells. Both of these processes are likely caused by the activation of specific receptors.
The authors of the study found that LSD, psilocin and TrkB bind to receptors in petri dishes. This binding led to an increase in the neuroplasticity of neurons. To study this mechanism further, the authors gave a single dose of LSD to mice with chronic stress. It was found by the team that drug binding to TrkB caused an antidepressant response.
Moreover, the researchers found that the effect on TrkB was independent from the drug’s effect on the brain’s serotonin receptors, which are believed to be responsible for psychedelic hallucinations. This suggests that the antidepressant effects can be caused independently from the hallucinatory effects.
“Our findings confirm TrkB is the target of psychedelic drugs-induced plasticity,” wrote the authors. “These data confirm TrkB as a common binding target for antidepressants … but potentially devoid of hallucinogenic-like activity.”
So, in the future, we could have the feel-good benefits of LSD or magic mushrooms without the psychedelic trip. While that might be a little less fun than just taking the drug, it will be a huge boon to the millions of people in the U.S. who suffer from depression every day–and that’s something to feel groovy about.
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