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Magic mushrooms could be the next antidepressant

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The psychedelic drug psilocybin—better known as magic mushrooms—can build new neural connections in the brain, and this could explain why it could become an effective antidepressant.

Although the drug has been studied as a potential antidepressant for years, researchers have been unable to understand just how it could work.

A research team from Yale has discovered a single dose of psilocybin increases the density of dendritic spines, small protrusions on nerve cells that help information pass between neurons.  These connections are impaired in people who are chronically depressed or stressed.

In tests on laboratory mice, the researchers found the drug improves the rate of new neural connections by 10 percent, and those connections are around 10 percent larger than normal, suggesting they are also stronger.

These improvements were visible within 24 hours of giving the mice psilocybin and were still apparent a month later.  The mice subjected to stress also showed improvements in their behaviour after they were given psilocybin.

Just how the drug is causing this reaction is something that still needs investigating.  Lead researcher Alex Kwan thinks it could be to do with the new experiences that magic mushrooms can create.  

As the drug can cause profound mystical experiences, and it’s used in religious ceremonies in indigenous cultures in South America, it could be these different experiences are triggering the growth of neural connections.  “These new connections may be the structural changes the brain uses to store new experiences,” he said.

(Source: Neuron, 2021; doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2021.06.008)

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