Study Shows Psilocybin Promotes New Growth of Neurons in Brain
A major development in the treatment of depression shows psilocybin can actually grow connections inside the brain without a hallucinogenic trip.
As we have previously reported, researchers have found that psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms can reduce major depressive disorder in humans. but we have not known how it works or how long it will last.
Now a new study out of Yale University shows one dose of psilocybin in mice creates rapid and sustained connections between neurons.
Steven Grant Ph.D. Director of Research at the Heffter Research Institute, a non-profit organization a non-profit organization that promotes research into hallucinogens and the brain, has studied how drugs affect the brain for nearly 50 years.
“So, what they discovered, not only does a single dose of psilocybin produce the formation of neuronal growth as measured by what are called ‘spines,'” Grant said. “Spines are the little nubby protrusions off the branches of a neuron that are associated with the connections with other neurons, so presumably the more spines the more connections you have. And the study found that psilocybin not only produced growth in the number of spines, but it persisted over a month. So that’s remarkable — one dose produces this long-lasting change in the ability of the neurons to form new connections.”
How does psilocybin creating spine formation work to relieve depression?
“The jump between spine formation and relief of anxiety is a jump; it’s a leap,” Grant said. “So, we can’t fill in every single step there, but the idea is that these drugs are increasing the ability of neurons to communicate with each other and form new connections, which will then form new patterns of brain activity, which will then form new patterns of behavioral activity. So, if you think of depression for example as being stuck — you’re stuck in a place that’s aversive and hedonic, you have low mood — how do you get out of that? Especially if you don’t think anything is worthwhile. What this study suggests is there is a neurobiological process that psilocybin kicks off that starts with the formation of new connections that then will presumably allow the person to engage in new forms of behavior and not be in the hole that they were in.”
By blocking the receptor in the brain that receives the psychedelic effects of psilocybin, the researchers made another, perhaps more important, discovery, and settled an ongoing debate.
“There is a debate in the field whether the therapeutic effects depend on the psychedelic effects, and this is an active controversy in the field. This study suggests that spine formation is related to the therapeutic effects and can occur in the absence of a measure of the psychedelic effects, insofar as we can measure it in mice. This study is remarkable because it’s a step in showing that you can get some degree of disassociation between the psychedelic effects and the therapeutic effects,” Grant said.
As someone who has studied this for nearly 50 years, what does Grant hope these discoveries mean for the future of psychedelics to treat depression?
“This will result in the use of drugs that will have a therapeutic effect very rapidly, that the person doesn’t have to be on a chronic drug regimen, and that it produces persistent therapeutic effects,” Grant said.
Although the findings of this study were remarkable, Grant cautions that this study was done on mice. Animal studies often translate to humans, but not always. Much more testing remains to be done, and it will be hard to replicate the same results in humans, but this could be a major step forward in understanding how plant medicine can heal us.
The Sacred Uses of Psychedelics in Human History
So much has been written over the past several decades regarding the historical use of psychedelic plants and the way they’ve contributed to the evolution of our species. Scholars, writers, and scientists — including researcher Graham Hancock, psychologist Timothy Leary, and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna — have proposed our very evolution is inseparable from the use of psychotropics and the way they’ve shaped the human experience.
And now we welcome a new wave of psychedelic researchers, including author Tom Hatsis, who has deeply considered the ways in which certain plants may or may not have been depicted in ancient and sacred contexts.
Hatsis might be regarded as a man on a quest to prove nature’s plants have the power to bring growth and insight beyond ordinary sources of knowledge and information, but he is clear to distinguish between recreational and sacred use of them. He is also armed with plenty of research that aims to clear up misguided conclusions about the role of psychedelics in history, including their appearances throughout biblical works of art.