Psychedelics (serotonergic hallucinogens) are powerful psychoactive substances that alter perception and mood and affect numerous cognitive processes. They are generally considered physiologically safe and do not lead to dependence or addiction. Their origin predates written history, and they were employed by early cultures in many sociocultural and ritual contexts. After the virtually contemporaneous discovery of (5R,8R)-(+)-lysergic acid-N,N-diethylamide (LSD)-25 and the identification of serotonin in the brain, early research focused intensively on the possibility that LSD and other psychedelics had a serotonergic basis for their action. Today there is a consensus that psychedelics are agonists or partial agonists at brain serotonin 5-hydroxytryptamine 2A receptors, with particular importance on those expressed on apical dendrites of neocortical pyramidal cells in layer V. Several useful rodent models have been developed over the years to help unravel the neurochemical correlates of serotonin 5-hydroxytryptamine 2A receptor activation in the brain, and a variety of imaging techniques have been employed to identify key brain areas that are directly affected by psychedelics. Recent and exciting developments in the field have occurred in clinical research, where several double-blind placebo-controlled phase 2 studies of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy in patients with cancer-related psychosocial distress have demonstrated unprecedented positive relief of anxiety and depression. Two small pilot studies of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy also have shown positive benefit in treating both alcohol and nicotine addiction. Recently, blood oxygen level–dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging and magnetoencephalography have been employed for in vivo brain imaging in humans after administration of a psychedelic, and results indicate that intravenously administered psilocybin and LSD produce decreases in oscillatory power in areas of the brain’s default mode network
Atrophy of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) plays a key role in the pathophysiology of depression and related disorders. The ability to promote both structural and functional plasticity in the PFC has been hypothesized to underlie the fast-acting antidepressant properties of the dissociative anesthetic ketamine. Here, we report that, like ketamine, serotonergic psychedelics are capable of robustly increasing neuritogenesis and/or spinogenesis both in vitro and in vivo. These changes in neuronal structure are accompanied by increased synapse number and function, as measured by fluorescence microscopy and electrophysiology. The structural changes induced by psychedelics appear to result from stimulation of the TrkB, mTOR, and 5-HT2A signaling pathways and could possibly explain the clinical effectiveness of these compounds. Our results underscore the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and, importantly, identify several lead scaffolds for medicinal chemistry efforts focused on developing plasticity-promoting compounds as safe, effective, and fast-acting treatments for depression and related disorders.