Psychedelics have been used for centuries for their mind-altering effects. In recent years, research has suggested that psychedelics can also have a positive impact on neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to change and adapt in response to new experiences, and it is essential for learning, memory, and recovery from injury.
In this article, we will explore the effects of psychedelics on neuroplasticity and how these substances may be used in the future to treat a variety of mental health disorders.
What are Psychedelics?
Psychedelics are a class of substances that alter perception, thought, and mood. They include LSD, psilocybin (found in "magic mushrooms"), DMT, and mescaline. These substances work by interacting with the serotonin system in the brain, which regulates mood, perception, and cognition.
Why does Neuroplasticity matter?
During the so-called sensitive periods of brain development, which usually take place between the ages of 1 and 4, when the brain is especially receptive to environmental input, we have all encountered increased neuroplasticity.
This explains why children pick up new skills like skiing and foreign languages with ease. But even as a child, you don't learn things by magic; you need to engage in activities in an environment that is stimulating enough to take advantage of this neuroplastic state.
Although the concept of neuroplasticity seems promising, the idea that we can fully rejuvenate and remodel our brains at any age goes beyond what scientific evidence supports. While there are limits to how much we can alter our brain, we still have opportunities for growth and learning throughout our lives.
Our brains are most malleable during specific developmental periods, but this doesn't mean that we can't continue to learn and adapt as we age. As we get older, however, we may need to put in more effort to learn new things. The structural changes in our brains as we age, such as the decreased connectivity between neurons in the hippocampus, can affect our memory.
While there are some ways to slightly enhance these connections, such as with psilocybin, we cannot turn back time and make our brains function as if we were much younger. Nonetheless, we should not be discouraged, as our brains remain capable of growth and learning throughout our lives.
The Effects of Psychedelics on Neuroplasticity
Research has shown that psychedelics can increase neuroplasticity in several ways. For example, they can stimulate the growth of new neurons and increase the number of connections between existing neurons. They can also enhance synaptic plasticity, which refers to the brain's ability to strengthen or weaken connections between neurons in response to new experiences.
One of the most studied psychedelics is psilocybin. A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis found that psilocybin increased the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in learning and memory. The study also found that psilocybin increased the number of connections between existing neurons, which is essential for information processing.
Another study, conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, found that psilocybin increased the openness and creativity of study participants.
The researchers suggested that this may be due to the way that psilocybin enhances neuroplasticity, allowing the brain to make new connections and explore new ideas.
In addition to psilocybin, other psychedelics have also been found to enhance neuroplasticity. LSD, for example, has been shown to increase synaptic plasticity in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in decision-making, personality, and social behavior.
When Experimentation Goes Awry
Although being in a neuroplastic state improves our capacity for learning, it may also exacerbate unpleasant or traumatic experiences—or memories—if they occur while using psychedelics.
A patient of mine who was in her early 50s last year made the decision to try psilocybin with a friend. Up until she started to remember memories of her emotionally abusive, alcohol-dependent father, the experience was quite enjoyable. She experienced vivid and distressing memories of her early years in the weeks after her psilocybin exposure, which sparked an acute depression. If she'd had a guide or therapist with her throughout her trip to help her reassess these memories and make them less harmful, her experience might have been very different—possibly even positive.
This must have been just the sort of situation legislators in Oregon had in mind last month when they legalized recreational psilocybin use, but only in conjunction with a licensed guide. It’s the right idea.
Ultimately, psychedelic therapy involves other significant experiences besides the actual psychedelic experience. An overall therapeutic effect that is stronger can be achieved with increased neuroplasticity, psychedelic experience in a secure environment, and accompanying psychotherapy.
Potential Applications for Mental Health Disorders
Given the potential of psychedelics to enhance neuroplasticity, there has been growing interest in their use as a treatment for mental health disorders. For example, studies have shown that psychedelics may be effective in treating depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction.
One study conducted by researchers at Imperial College London found that psilocybin was effective in reducing symptoms of depression in people who had not responded to traditional antidepressant medications. The researchers suggested that this may be due to the way that psilocybin enhances neuroplasticity, allowing the brain to form new connections and break out of negative thought patterns.
Similarly, a study conducted by researchers at New York University found that psilocybin was effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety in people with advanced cancer. The researchers suggested that this may be due to the way that psilocybin enhances neuroplasticity, allowing the brain to process emotions in a new way.
In addition to depression and anxiety, psychedelics may also be effective in treating PTSD. A study conducted by researchers at the University of South Carolina found that MDMA, a type of psychedelic, was effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD in veterans. The researchers suggested that this may be due to the way that MDMA enhances neuroplasticity, allowing the brain to form new connections and process traumatic experiences in a new way.
In conclusion, psychedelics have the potential to enhance neuroplasticity in a variety of ways, including stimulating the growth of new neurons.
When used properly, psychedelics and other substances that boost neuroplasticity can do some truly amazing things, like speed up the recovery from depression, reduce anxiety in patients who are nearing the end of their lives, and lessen the worst PTSD symptoms.
That alone is sufficient motivation to investigate their applications and inform patients that, in the event that the evidence needs it, psychedelics are a viable option for psychiatric treatment. However, the illusion of limitless drug-induced self-enhancement is untrue.
Vivien Freeflow · 5/10/2023