Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change, modify and adapt its structure and function over the course of life as a response to various experiences. This ability is often disrupted in the early stages of depression, with negative stimuli such as stress causing changes in neuroplasticity that play a major role in the development of depression.
Treatments meant to alleviate depression work by acting on neural plasticity to increase the brain’s plasticity and adult neurogenesis. In recent years, the scientific community has increasingly turned its eyes to psychedelic drugs as alternative treatments for mental health conditions, including depression.
Initial studies have found that hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin, ketamine, and MDMA can be effective at alleviating the symptoms of mental illnesses, including post traumatic stress disorder and treatment-resistant depression. Studies have found that psychedelic-assisted therapies are especially effective when they are paired with psychotherapy.
One such study found that MDMA or ecstasy has the ability to ‘resensitize’ the brain of adults mice and allow them to adapt to their social environment in a way that is typically reserved for teenage years. Childhood and teenagehood represent ‘critical periods’ where external stimuli can cause long term changes to the brain due to plasticity.
However, neuroplasticity fades as we age, and it becomes harder for the brain to adapt to environmental stimuli like it once could.
Speaking in a recent interview, neuroscientist Gül Dölen who spearheaded the 2019 study, stated that MDMA was able to restart the critical period for social development long after it had closed. Dölen and his team studied more than 1,000 mice at 15 different ages, discovering that plasticity was triggered by oxytocin in a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens in young animals.
Since oxytocin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning researchers couldn’t use it to directly trigger plasticity, they had to find another way to induce the mechanism. Unlike modern researchers who are more concerned with the more immediate effects of taking MDMA, Dölen wanted to see how the drug would affect animal subjects over the long term. After observing the mice 48 hours after they were dosed with MDMA, the researchers found that the mice had renewed social reward learning even though this critical learning period should have been closed permanently.
Test mice were able to quickly associate one type of bedding with a more social setting and begin spending more time in that bedding. In comparison, adult mice don’t form such connections rapidly and spend the same amount of time in different bedding regardless of the social situation of each.
Researchers could use MDMA’s groundbreaking ability to reopen the critical period to expand the kinds of mental health illnesses psychedelics can treat.
Other teams, such as those at Field Trip Health Ltd. (NASDAQ: FTRP) (TSX: FTRP), are also studying a variety of active psychedelic compounds with a view to formulating remedies that will revolutionize the way people with mental health conditions have been treated for decades.
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