Psychedelic drugs’ mindexpanding properties may be rooted in their ability to prompt neurons to branch out and create new connections with other brain cells, new research has found.
This discovery may explain why psychedelic drugs appear to be a valuable treatment for a wide range of psychiatric diseases, scientists said.
In test tubes as well as in rats and flies, psychedelic drugs as diverse as LSD, ecstasy, psilocybin and ketamine all share this knack for promoting neural “plasticity,” the ability to forge new connections (called neurites) among brain cells. In particular, the drugs appeared to fuel the growth of dendritic spines and axons, the appendages that brain cells of all sorts use to reach out in the darkness and create connections, or synapses, with other brain cells.
The study, led by UC Davis chemist David E. Olson, was published last week in the journal Cell Reports.
The discovery of this neurite-promoting property could shed light on why these chemically distinct drugs all appear helpful in treating depression, anxiety, addiction and posttraumatic stress disorder, Olson said.
It also may point the way to the creation of compounds that mimic the plasticity-promoting properties of these drugs without inducing the potentially dangerous hallucinations, out-of-body experiences and full-on euphoria.