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Psychedelics Are Healthy for Your Brain

Updated on July 16, 2020
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Many people report that psychedelic substances, such as LSD or magic mushrooms, have triggered long-term, sometimes “life-changing” thought processes in them.

Scientists including David Olsen from California, USA, have investigated the effects of various psychedelic substances on nerve cells in living organisms and artificial cell cultures. For their experiments, the researchers chose psychedelics with the most diverse chemical structures possible, including LSD (an ergot alkaloid), N, N-DMT, and psilocin (tryptamines), DOI and MDMA (psychedelic amphetamines) and ibogaine (iboga psychedelics). Also, the body’s messenger substance serotonin and non-psychedelic amphetamine were tested — substances that are chemically very similar to psychedelics, but without psychedelic effects.

All psychedelics increased the number of nerve branches.

The pure substances were fed to fruit fly and zebrafish larvae and isolated nerve cells in Petri dishes. Doses were deliberately chosen, as they also occur in the brain during psychedelic experiences. After a single contact with each of the substances, the organisms and nerve cells were allowed to grow for several days or weeks. Then all nerve cells were examined under the microscope and their length, the number of branches, and the density of their synapses were measured.

The results were clear: All psychedelic substances increased the number of branches at the nerve cells and the density of functional synapses. These effects did not occur with serotonin or non-psychedelic amphetamine. LSD was shown to be the most potent overall and led to almost a doubling of branching. Also, it was still slightly effective even at extremely low doses. This could be the first scientific indication of the effectiveness of LSD microdoses in organisms.

Surprisingly, the herbal psychedelic ibogaine showed no effect on the nerve cells. Only the metabolic product Noribogaine derived from it was effective like the other psychedelics. This contradicts the current view that ibogaine is the active ingredient of the iboga plant. Instead, the psychedelic effect could be caused by metabolic product noribogaine.

By adding the anti-psychedelic ketanserin, the effects of all substances on the nerve cells could be completely prevented. Since ketanserin specifically blocks the “psychedelic receptor” 5-HT2A, it was shown that its activity is necessary for the effects on the nerve cells.

This seems to be strong evidence in these results that psychedelics can stimulate the formation of new connections in the brain.

However, it is known that only those nerve connections that are regularly actively used remain in the brain.

But how do psychedelic substances work? Fantastic, eidetic, psychotomimetics, psycholeptics, hallucinogens, psychoplastogens — the multitude of names for the substances known as psychedelics already indicates the elusiveness of this substance class.

Psychedelics are the only class of substances known to us that not only affect every aspect of human consciousness but also stimulate nerve cells to form new connections (Lucys reported) and protect neurons from oxygen deficiency (Lucys reported).

According to current knowledge, psychedelics bind mainly to the serotonin-2A receptor (5-HT2A-R), which is found in certain brain areas. This leads to a reduction in the filter functions of the so-called resting-state networks so that other brain areas can communicate more freely with each other. This observation explains synaesthesia (mixing of senses) and ego dissolution, but not for the psychoplastogenic effect (the stimulation to form new neuronal connections) or the protective functions against oxygen deficiency. Now a scientific study has been published which shows that psychedelics trigger significantly more effects in the brain than previously known.

A Dutch research group led by Dr. Natascha Mason of Maastricht University has now investigated the changes in neurotransmitter concentrations in the human brain after taking psilocybin.

They found 60 volunteers, 30 of whom were given either a moderate dose of psilocybin of 0.17 mg/kg body weight or a placebo. One to two hours after taking the substances, the volunteers’ brains were examined using high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The scientists looked for changes in the body’s messenger substance glutamate in certain areas of the brain. The results of this measurement were also compared with questionnaires filled out later, in which the test persons described their psychedelic experiences.

The results were complex: While the glutamate concentration increased in the prefrontal cortex, a region for higher cognitive performance and abstract thinking, it decreased in the hippocampus, a region for bringing together different sensory impressions and for creating memorable content. The change in glutamate levels in the prefrontal cortex correlated significantly with more negative experiences, such as a feeling of loss of control or chaotic thought flows. The reduction of the glutamate level in the hippocampus correlated in turn with positively experienced ego dissolution, so-called oceanic self-delimitation.

The scientists discuss two hypotheses as to what exactly could cause these changes in glutamate levels. Firstly, the neurons stimulated via the 5-HT2A receptor could have a direct influence on the glutamate concentration. Alternatively, nearby inhibitory neurons that carry the 5-HT1A receptor could be activated and these then readjust the glutamate level. The basic binding affinity of psilocin (the psychoactive metabolite of psilocybin) to the 5-HT1A receptor has already been demonstrated in previous studies.

The new findings show how incomplete the previous understanding of psychedelic substances still is.

The activation of the known “psychedelic receptor” 5-HT2A alone cannot explain all effects of psychedelics. Instead, this binding seems to be only the first impulse in a complex chain of actions and reactions in the human brain, which includes various local releases of the body’s neurotransmitters.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Jan Knura

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