Supporters of psychedelics have spent years touting their benefits. Yet, up until now, the evidence of such potential has remained largely anecdotal. And research into how these substances actually alter the brain is even more scarce. Conservative views and strict regulations have kept clinical studies to a minimum.
However, opinions are slowly starting to change. Leading educational institutes, from John Hopkins University to London’s Imperial College, are driving this revolution. With MDMA en route to becoming an approved treatment for PTSD and psilocybin following a similar trajectory for depression, traditional attitudes towards drugs are shifting. This psychedelic renaissance holds the power to not only uncover new ways of thinking, but also reveal an array of potent tools to help tackle the global mental health crisis.
Yale University is yet another prestigious organization taking part in this movement. On July the 5th, 2021, the university published its findings into the effects of psilocybin on neural connections. Science has already proven that severe stress and depression can reduce such transmissions, and substances, such as anti-depressants, are employed to counter the problem by triggering new links. Could psilocybin, the psychoactive element found in magic mushrooms and truffles, be added to that list of substances? The team at Yale believes so.
Led by senior author Alex Kwan and first author Ling-Xiao Shao, the researchers investigated the growth of dendritic spines in mice using laser scanning microscopy. Through high resolution imagery, the team tracked dendritic spines over several days, that is, small protrusions on nerve cells that help relay information in the medial frontal cortex.
The study revealed that administering just one dose of psilocybin resulted in an immediate and long-lasting boost in neural connections. Within 24 hours, they recorded an increase in spines or connections by roughly 10%. On top of that, aside from the number, the drug also made the spines larger, again by 10%. This increase in size and frequency meant the new connections were much stronger, too.
Perhaps the most surprising discovery, however, was the fact that these structural changes were still present one month after administration, supporting the theory of psychedelics eliciting long-term benefits. Aside from the effect on neural connections, the mice also experienced elevated neurotransmitter activity and exhibited improved behavior when subjected to stress.
The results certainly demonstrate psilocybin’s potential for inducing positive effects that are both fast-acting and long-lasting. With depression affecting millions of people across the globe and anti-depressants failing to provide a reliable solution, such findings pose plenty of promise for the future of healthcare.