Psychedelic substances are quickly becoming a major disruptive force in the treatment of various mental health conditions. Psychedelics not only produce sustained therapeutic effects following a single administered dose, but they also demonstrate broad therapeutic potential in the treatment of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorder, and alcohol use disorder, to name a few.
As research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for mental health advances, we are becoming more and more familiar with the underlying mechanisms through which these potent substances operate. Psychedelics belong to a class of compounds known as psychoplastogens which are considered robust contributors to enhanced structural and functional neural plasticity in key circuits relevant to brain health.
A recently published scientific review paper led by a group of neuroscientists at UC Davis provided a thorough exploration of how psychedelics and psychoplastogens heal brain damage associated with many brain disorders and mental health disorders. They discussed "the importance of structural plasticity in the treatment of neuropsychiatric diseases, as well as the evidence demonstrating that psychedelics are among the most effective chemical modulators of neural plasticity studied to date".
They also found that psychedelics and psychoplastogens not only enhance neuroplasticity but also help regenerate damaged neurons. "Cortical atrophy, or the physical withering of neurons in a key brain region is really at the heart of a wide variety of brain diseases, such as depression, PTSD, substance use disorder, and many others. So, the reason that psychoplastogens seem to work for multiple indications is because they address the root cause of all of these disorders.", said the lead researcher.
The image below demonstrates the effect of psychoplastogens on cortical atrophy associated with depression:
The team also compared the results from three clinical trials of fluoxetine (a traditional SSRI), ketamine, and psilocybin (both psychoplastogens) and their impact on depressive symptoms. As demonstrated below, the psychoplastogen substances caused a more immediate, significant, and lasting reduction in depressive symptoms, associated with their impact on addressing the root cause of cortical atrophy.
Pharmacy Times interviewed the lead researcher, David Olson, Ph.D., the chief innovation officer, head of the scientific advisory board, and co-founder of Delix therapeutics, and an associate professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular medicine at the University of California, Davis about his findings. Below are the key excerpts of their fascinating exchange:
Olson defines a psychoplastogen as "a small molecule that is really good at promoting neural plasticity and allowing the brain to actually heal the physical damage that is associated with a lot of brain disorders." He goes on to explain that understanding this class of compounds is critical to psychedelic research "because psychedelics are among the most potent psychoplastogen that we know of".
Olson goes on to explain that psychoplastogens are particularly of interest for the treatment of brain disorders because the traditional treatment options until now have been focused on symptom treatment without addressing the underlying issues while psychoplastogens "physically rewire the brain to get at the root cause of these illnesses. An analogy I like to make is if your light goes out in your living room, you can use a flashlight to get around, and that would be like a traditional treatment, but what a psychoplastogen is more akin to is like an electrician that would come in and fix the broken wiring so that you can actually turn that light on again."
Up until recently, most brain disorders and mental illnesses were considered to be caused by
chemical imbalances in the brain. They are now considered to be disorders of neural circuits which means that effective long-term treatment must target to fix the faulty neural circuitry. What makes psychedelics and psychoplastogens a revolutionary treatment option for these conditions is their ability to physically rewire neural circuits to heal damaged circuitry.