Brain Hugs: Psychedelic Drugs Help Neurons Reach Out to Each Other

New research suggests that LSD and similar drugs can help improve neural plasticity and potentially treat depression and anxiety.

Larry Mulvehill/Getty Images
Larry Mulvehill/Getty Images

A new molecular medicine study from the University of California concludes that psychedelic drugs like LSD are — as you might have expected — mind-altering.

It may seem like the kind of study that would appear in the Journal of Obvious Science, but there's a twist. According to the new data, psychedelics can be literally mind-altering, triggering physical changes to neurons and changing the very shape of the brain.

The research, which was published in the journal Cell, reveals that psychedelics can cause measurable changes to brain cells on the molecular level, making neurons more elastic and flexible. As a result, these neurons are able to reach out and connect with other adjacent neurons.

Considered against other research on the brain and behavior, the new study supports the increasingly persuasive idea that psychedelic drugs could be used to help fight anxiety, addiction, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

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For several decades now, doctors have proceeded from the theory that many mood disorders — especially depression — stem from imbalanced brain chemistry. But more recent studies have uncovered evidence that depression is associated with certain kinds of physical atrophy in the brain's complex circuitry.

David E. Olson, the lead author of the new study, said in a statement that these brain changes also appear in cases of anxiety, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“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,” he said.

The new research shows that psychedelics have the ability to reverse this atrophy, opening new pathways and branching off new synapses. Psychedelics were also shown to increase both the density of dendritic spines and the density of synapses. Improved synaptic communication like this have been proven clinically effective in treating mood disorders.

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So far, the UC-Davis team has only tested these effects of psychedelics on rats and flies. But previous experiments in both vertebrates and invertebrates show that psychedelics tend to produce similar effects across species. As such, research into psychedelic-induced brain changes could help future research identify future depression treatments.

The researchers said that they don't expect pure psychedelics to become a prescription option for depression or anxiety.

"But a compound inspired by psychedelics very well could,” Olsen noted.