Summary: By examining how psychedelics like psilocybin act on serotonin receptors, researchers shed new light on how the drugs affect consciousness and help treat various mental health disorders.
Source: Allen Institute
If an epileptic patient needs brain surgery, their brain surgeon will often remove a piece of the outer membrane about the size of a sugar cube to find the regions responsible for the seizures. This excision is far away from the site of the disease and is discarded as medical waste.
But neuroscientists like Jonathan Ting, Ph.D., say that brain tissue is “the most precious thing in the universe.”
Ting, co-investigator in the Allen Institute’s Department of Brain Sciences, and his team use surgically removed brain tissue and live human brain cells donated by patients to learn how they work. Ting and others at the Allen Institute for Brain Science aim to construct a “time table” of brain cells to categorize the brain into cellular building blocks.
Understanding what happens at the cellular level can help scientists better understand larger processes in the brain, including learning, consciousness, and psychic experiences.
For the past two years, Tin and his colleagues have been sending brain samples on trips with magic mushrooms.
By taking brain slices cut with psilocybin, a psychoactive substance found in hallucinogenic shrooms, the team wanted to understand how individual neurons responded to the drug.
There is growing evidence and ongoing trials showing psilocybin as a potential treatment for depression, anxiety, PTSD and other psychiatric conditions, Ting said. However, little is known about how psilocybin works in the human brain, its ability to improve hallucinations or mental disorders.
“It’s surprising that all this work is being done in the clinic in human patients without a thorough understanding of what the drug does at a mechanistic level,” Ting said. “Our idea is to study them at the single cell level and try to see what these drugs are doing in certain types of brain cells and regions.”
Psilocybin mimics serotonin, which cells release to regulate mood, and binds to specific serotonin receptors on different brain cells, said Meanhwan Kim, a colleague of Ting’s and a neuroscientist at the Institute of Brain Sciences.
To see what happens to cells exposed to the drug, the team used a technique called Patch-seq to capture the electrical activity, 3D shape and gene expression of individual neurons treated with psilocybin.
They expected that the psychedelic drug would activate all the cells that carry a specific serotonin receptor, but instead, some of these cells were activated, some were deactivated, and notably most were unresponsive.
These receptors are found in different parts of the brain, so scientists are now expanding their search to sample cells from different regions, as well as studying the same neurons in mice, and developing new tools to tap into these specific cells. types.
The team is presenting their results Saturday, Nov. 12, at the Neuroscience 2022 conference in San Diego. While they do not yet have an explanation for these findings, gaining insight into the specific cellular mechanisms of psilocybin may lead to further research into how the drug works and what it is used for.
Can we separate the journey from the cure?
Psilocybin is a Schedule I substance considered highly addictive by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and difficult to obtain for medical use and research purposes under the Controlled Substances Act. It took the researchers about a year to get permission to use the drug, and the team had to keep it protected by a passport code in the lab.
But attitudes toward psilocybin and other psychedelics are changing, driving a “resurgence in psychedelic research,” says Christoph Koch, Ph.D., chief scientist of the Allen Institute’s MindScope Program and part of the team studying the drug’s action.
With the help of psychotherapists, patients who use the drug feel that their sense of self is dissolved and connected to the universe, they are getting a positive outlook on life, said Koch. Such actions may result in the ability of psychedelics to treat conditions such as depression and anxiety.
“Because of these mystical experiences, the patient can overcome depression or correct depression and return to a rational mental being,” said Koch. “It really seems to restore the sanity and balance in the patient’s life. It’s magical.”
Ting wonders if scientists can separate the journey from the cure. If so, will the stigma against psychedelics be lifted? But for Coke, the two characteristics may be inseparable.
“We don’t know yet; But I strongly doubt that you cannot tell the two apart. Illusion is an important part of how these drugs work,” Koch said.
It is not yet clear how long these treatment effects last. Most studies only looked at up to 6 months after treatment, Koch said, adding that more research is needed to measure the long-term effectiveness and safety of psilocybin. Psychedelics cause profound experiences and should be approached with caution, even with growing scientific interest and social acceptance, he said.
“They are powerful substances. They are powerful drugs, so one should treat them with great care.” Coke said.
So psychedelics and psychopharmacology research news
Preliminary study: The findings are presented in Neuroscience 2022