Psychedelics have been used for centuries by different cultures, with their popularity in the 1960s prompting research into their benefits. Until now, however, researchers are yet to fully understand how these substances actually work in the brain. Associate professor Alex Kwan of the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering is mapping the neural response of these hallucinogens in the brain through the use of optical microscopy. This may, in the future, lead to the development of treatments for cluster headaches and substance-use disorders as well as fast-acting antidepressants.
Kwan stated that while researchers knew how psychedelics worked at the structural level, there wasn’t a lot of information available on how they worked at the neural circuit level. He explained that while interest in psychedelics from popular figures such as Michael Pollan prompted research into their benefits, most of the studies carried out during this period used fairly basic methods.
To help bring the decades-old contrasting data up to date, Kwan and a group of collaborators authored a paper that looked into the basic neurobiology of how psychedelic substances worked at the molecular, chemical, network and neuronal levels. The paper also discussed topics to be explored in the future, including the impact of compound psychedelics on various types of brain cells.
The study mainly focused on psilocybin, which is the primary active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms. Psilocybin is the most promising candidate for drug development, given that it’s already being tested in trials for various indications. Kwan’s laboratory is also examining other compounds, including 5-MeO-DMT.
During the study, the researchers used two-photon microscopy to demonstrate that one dose of psilocybin grew the number of neuronal connections in the brain of mice by roughly 10%. This discovery led to the rise of other questions, such as whether the changes observed underlie the therapeutic effects of psilocybin and why new neuronal connections were created.
Kwan, who was recently awarded a $300,000 grant, will be able to investigate this now. The three-year grant supports early-career researchers in psychiatry, neuroscience and related disciplines who are conducting research that addresses a range of mental health conditions.
He added that learning which pathways were involved would allow researchers to use this as a market to discover new drugs, noting that knowing the pathways targeted by these hallucinogens could also allow the stimulation of these pathways using a psychedelic to enhance the effects of the drug.
The paper’s findings were reported in the “Nature Neuroscience” journal.
As more attention is directed towards rare neurological conditions by biopharmaceutical companies such as Silo Pharma Inc. (NASDAQ: SILO), novel treatments for those illnesses may not be far off.
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