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
Psychedelics and the essential importance of context
Psychedelic drugs are making waves as modern trials support their therapeutic potential and various media continue to pique public interest. In this opinion piece, we draw attention to a long-recognised component of the psychedelic treatment model, namely ‘set’ and ‘setting’ – subsumed here under the umbrella term ‘context’. We highlight: (a) the pharmacological mechanisms of classic psychedelics (5-HT2A receptor agonism and associated plasticity) that we believe render their effects exceptionally sensitive to context, (b) a study design for testing assumptions regarding positive interactions between psychedelics and context, and (c) new findings from our group regarding contextual determinants of the quality of a psychedelic experience and how acute experience predicts subsequent long-term mental health outcomes. We hope that this article can: (a) inform on good practice in psychedelic research, (b) provide a roadmap for optimising treatment models, and (c) help tackle unhelpful stigma still surrounding these compounds, while developing an evidence base for long-held assumptions about the critical importance of context in relation to psychedelic use that can help minimise harms and maximise potential benefits. Keywords: Psychedelics; psychotherapy; serotonin
Psychedelics promote structural and functional neural plasticity
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.
The subjective effects of psychedelics are necessary for their enduring therapeutic effects
Classic psychedelics produce altered states of consciousness that individuals often interpret as meaningful experiences. Across a number of human studies, when the participant-rated intensity of the overall drug effects are statistically controlled for, certain subjective effects predict therapeutic and other desirable outcomes. Underlying neurobiological mechanisms are likely necessary but not sufficient to confer full and enduring beneficial effects. We propose that the subjective effects of psychedelics are necessary for their enduring beneficial effects and that these subjective effects account for the majority of their benefit.
Psychedelics and Consciousness: Distinctions, Demarcations, and Opportunities
Psychedelic substances produce unusual and compelling changes in conscious experience that have prompted some to propose that psychedelics may provide unique insights explaining the nature of consciousness. At present, psychedelics, like other current scientific tools and methods, seem unlikely to provide information relevant to the so-called “hard problem of consciousness,” which involves explaining how first-person experience can emerge. However, psychedelics bear on multiple “easy problems of consciousness,” which involve relations between subjectivity, brain function, and behavior. In this review, we discuss common meanings of the term “consciousness” when used with regard to psychedelics and consider some models of the effects of psychedelics on the brain that have also been associated with explanatory claims about consciousness. We conclude by calling for epistemic humility regarding the potential for psychedelic research to aid in explaining the hard problem of consciousness while pointing to ways in which psychedelics may advance the study of many specific aspects of consciousness.