The psychedelic drug psilocybin, a natural compound found in some mushrooms, has been studied for years as a potential treatment for depression. But it is still unclear how exactly the brain works and how long the beneficial results can last.
In a new study, Yale researchers show that there is a single dose of psilocybin administered to mice caused an immediate and lasting increase in connections between neurons. The findings are published in the journal on July 5th Neuron.
“Not only did we see a 10% increase in the number of neural connections, but they were also on average about 10% larger, so the connections were also stronger,” said Alex Kwan of Yale, an associate professor. of psychiatry and neuroscience and senior author of the work.
Previous laboratory experiments had shown the promise that psilocybin, as well as the anesthetic ketamine, can decrease depression. Yale’s new research found that these compounds increase the density of dendritic spines, small bumps found in nerve cells that aid in the transmission of information between neurons. Chronic stress and depression are known to reduce the number of these neural connections.
Using a laser scanning microscope, Kwan and first author Ling-Xiao Shao, a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale School of Medicine, imagined dendritic spines in high resolution and tracked them for several days in live mice. They found increases in the number of dendritic spines and in its size within 24 hours after psilocybin administration. These changes were still present a month later. In addition, stressed mice showed improvements in behavior and increased neurotransmitter activity after receiving psilocybin.
For some people, psilocybin, an active compound of the “magic mushrooms,” can produce a profound mystical experience. Psychedelic was a staple of religious ceremonies among the indigenous peoples of the New World and is also a popular recreational drug.
The new psychological effects of psilocybin itself may stimulate the growth of neural connections, Kwan said.
“It was a real surprise to see such lasting changes from a single dose of psilocybin,” he said. “These new connections may be the structural changes the brain uses to store new experiences.”
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