Study finds psychedelics show real promise for treating depression

13 Jun 2018

Firing neurons in the brain. Image: 3Dme Creative Studio/Shutterstock

It turns out psychedelic drugs do a lot more than give you a high for a period of time, and could actually treat a number of neurological disorders.

For decades, advocates of psychedelic drugs have waxed lyrical about the potential benefits of the likes of LSD, DMT and DOI, but there didn’t appear to be any concrete science to back up these claims.

But now, new research published in Cell Reports by a team of scientists from the University of California, Davis, has found evidence that seems to prove that psychedelics (in very small doses) could one day be used to treat depression, anxiety, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Testing the drugs in rats and flies, the results showed that these creatures’ brain cells were changed by the drugs, creating more neurons that were more likely to branch out and connect with one another, otherwise known as neural plasticity.

Detailing its findings in the paper, the team said it tested psychedelics from the amphetamine, tryptamine and ergoline drug classes. In both test tube and animal experiments, functional and structural changes – like those promoted by ketamine in cortical neurons – were shown.

The psychedelics increased both the density of dendritic spines and the density of synapses. Some of the drugs – including LSD – proved to be more potent and efficacious than ketamine in promoting neurite growth.

Psychedelic drugs test results

This figure shows the effects of three psychedelics and one control (VEH) on cortical neurons. Image: Ly et al

‘We should understand how they work’

Despite not testing on humans, experiments with psychedelics in rats and flies in the past have produced similar effects across species, indicating that biological mechanisms that respond to the drugs have remained the same across aeons of evolution, and that they will likely have the same neural plasticity 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 the senior author of the research paper, David E Olson.

Meanwhile, the use of psychedelics for the treatment of depression is backed by recent studies, which have shown evidence that it manifests as structural changes in brain circuits or atrophy in parts of the brain.

This doesn’t mean that the neurons die off when someone experiences depression, but that neurites – the connected bridge between two neurons – retract.

If psychedelics could help forge these connections again, it could be a valuable weapon in treating the disorder.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic