Psychedelics such as LSD, MDMA and DMT have been used by humans for hundreds of years. However, we still don’t know much about what these drugs do to our brain. On October 09 2017, a Brazilian study which tested the effects of psychedelic drugs on the brain was published in the Journal of Scientific Reports. The scientists used human minibrains, also known as “organoids” and found that the hallucinogenic compound known as 5-MeO-DMT triggers changes in the neuronal signalling pathways associated with inflammation, neuronal plasticity and neurodegeneration.
Recent studies have demonstrated that psychedelic substances such as LSD, MDMA and ayahuasca hold therapeutic potential with possible anti-inflammatory and antidepressant effects. However, these studies have been unable to explain how and why these compounds have produced specific positive effects.
“For the first time we could describe psychedelic related changes in the molecular functioning of human neural tissue”, said Stevens Rehen, study leader, Professor of Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and Head of Research at D’Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR).
In order to reveal the effects of 5-MeO-DMT, researchers exposed cerebral organoids, which are 3D cultures of neural cells that resemble a developing human brain, to a single dose of the psychedelic. The team found that 5-MeO-DMT altered the expression of almost 1,000 proteins. After mapping out which proteins were impacted, they found a clear pattern in results. Exposure to the psychedelic downregulated proteins involved in inflammation, degeneration and brain lesion and upregulated proteins important for synaptic function and maintenance.
“Results suggest that classic psychedelics are powerful inducers of neuroplasticity, a tool of psycho-biological transformation that we know very little about,” said Sidarta Ribeiro, study coauthor and director of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte Brain Institute. Professor and coauthor Draulio Araujo added, “The study suggests possible mechanisms by which these substances exert their antidepressant effects that we have been observing in our studies.”
“Our study reinforces the hidden clinical potential of substances that are under legal restrictions, but which deserve attention of medical and scientific communities”, Dr. Rehen said.
Although the team found a clear pattern in their results, a major weakness is that organoids don’t contain all the different areas of an actual human brain. Therefore, scientists using organoids to study the effects of drugs on the brain can’t see all the complex interactions that typically occur among brain regions when a person uses psychedelics. However, this study does provide a foundation for further research into why psychedelics like 5-MeO-DMT seem to help protect people’s brains from neurodegeneration.