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Psychedelics could heal damaged brain cells in ways that could help fight mental illness

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For decades now, the issue of mental health has been largely lacking any concrete meaningful treatment developments. But now, many scientists and scholars have become vocal advocates of a new hope for treatment, psychedelics. Recent research suggests certain psychedelic substances can help relieve or even treat anxiety, depression, PTSD, and addiction.

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In a new study published Tuesday in Cell Reports, researchers at the University of California, Davis, administered several psychedelics, including DMT, LSD, MDMA and Psilocin to flies and rats, in which they concluded that these substances resulted in neurons forming more synapse connections in their brains.

The results indicate psychedelics may be very effective in treating depression, addiction, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“These are among the most powerful drugs known to affect brain function, and our research shows that they can alter the structure of the brain as well. Changes in neuronal structure are important because they can impact how the brain is wired, and consequently, how we feel, think and behave,” said Dr David Olson, who lead the research team.

According to Dr Olson, one of the main signs of depression is that parts of a neuron that branch out to form connections with other neurons tend to “shrivel up” in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is critical in regulating emotion and anxiety.

“Thanks to studies on ketamine, slow-acting antidepressants and chronic stress models of depression, scientists now know that depression is not simply the result of a “chemical imbalance,” as pharmaceutical companies like to suggest. It is far more complicated and involves structural changes in key neural circuits that regulate emotion, anxiety, memory and reward,” Dr Olson added.

This images shows the effects of three psychedelics drugs — DMT, LSD, amphetamines (DOI) -and one control (VEH) on neurons in the prefrontal cortex showing that they promote growth

“The rapid effects of ketamine on mood and plasticity are truly astounding,” said Dr Olson. “The big question we were trying to answer was whether or not other compounds are capable of doing what ketamine does.”

Still, there is a downside to ketamine, it is addictive and thus has a potential for abuse, and here lies the importance of this study. Since many psychedelics have showed a low potential for addiction, but acquire similar antidepressant properties as ketamine, they seemed like a new hope for promoting neurite growth as a way to fight mental disorders.

“We specifically designed these experiments to mimic previous studies of ketamine so that we might directly compare these two compounds,” the researchers wrote. “To a first approximation, they appear to be remarkably similar.”

After administering a range of psychedelics (DMT, psilocin, MDMA and LSD) to flies and rats, the researchers found that they all promoted neurite growth. However, LSD was especially effective compared to the other substances, while ibogaine, was “the only psychedelic tested that had absolutely no effect.”

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

This is not the only study providing a new hope for the future of mental health.

According to a review of studies published in April online in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, just one psychedelic trip can lead to changes in personality that can possibly last for years.

A team of researchers from Brazil and Spain analyzed 18 studies conducted between 1985 and 2016, all of which examined the relationship between the use of psychedelics and personality changes.

Also, in a study published in the scientific journal Neuropharmacology, researchers found that depressed people had increased neural responses to fearful faces one day after a psilocybin-assisted therapy session, which positively predicted positive clinical outcomes.

After the 1970s Controlled Substance Act criminalized all psychedelics, research on psychedelics was halted for decades, imagine what we would have learned from these substances and the advances we would have made regarding the mental health epidemic and existential crises spreading all around the world.

Hopefully, this all is changing with the efforts of different organizations, scholars, and advocates who are at the forefront of this promising endeavor.

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