Scandinavian scientists have produced evidence that could lead to the development of non-hallucinogenic psychedelic medicines for the treatment of depression.
A study conducted by researchers from the University of Helsinki, and published in the journal Nature, aimed to understand if psychedelics could help fight depression without the patient experiencing hallucinations.
Many previous studies investigating the potential uses of psychedelic drugs such as psilocin and LSD have shown positive results as a treatment for depression. However, due to the hallucinogenic effects that characterise psychedelic drugs, many patients are excluded from using them. This could be due to personal choice, or because patients have a history of mental health problems such as bipolar disorder, or psychosis.
Scientists who worked on the study gave psilocin and LSD to mice, and through analysis were able to confirm that they bind to the same part of the brain as traditional antidepressant drugs. The study also showed that some psychedelics, such as LSD, bound to a receptor with over 1,000 more times force than common antidepressants such as fluoxetine.
Neuroplasticity is where the brain grows new information pathways, known as neurons, to effectively change and adapt to the environment it is experiencing. In the treatment of depression, it has been attributed to positive outcomes, from both psychedelic and traditional antidepressant drugs.
It is the effect on neuroplasticity, amongst others, that scientists want to produce in any new alternative treatments for people who live with depression.
Why do scientists believe psychedelics can promote neuroplasticity, without producing hallucinogenic effects on the user?
Although it is currently unclear to scientists exactly how psychedelics work on the brain, it has been proven that they produce their potent hallucinogenic effects on the user, in part, by binding to the serotonin 2A (5-HT2A) receptor.
Psychedelics also bind to a receptor known as TrkB. TrkB is the receptor researchers in the study found psychedelics to stick to with 1000 times more force than traditional antidepressant medicines. Importantly for this study, TkrB is associated with neuroplasticity.
By showing antidepressants to bind with TrkB, as well as LSD and psilocin binding with TrkB and 2A receptors, researchers have proven their hypothesis that non-hallucinogenic psychedelic drugs may possibly be developed.
Evidence derived from the study has led scientists to conclude that medicines could be developed to work on the part of the brain associated with antidepressant behaviours “with fast and long-lasting antidepressant action, but potentially devoid of hallucinogenic-like activity.”