Researchers at the University of California have found that psychedelic substances interact with our cells in a novel way. The team hypothesised that this novel pathway could contribute to the onset of schizophrenia. Proponents of psychedelic therapy have taken this as a step closer to these drugs becoming the norm when treating mental health conditions. However, as always the path to drug discovery is not always black and white.
A study published by Vargas et al. (2023) in Science recently reported that a substance found in psychedelic drugs, Psilocybin, promoted the growth of brain cells by moving inside of them. There, psilocybin interacts with internal 5-HT2A receptors. This is strikingly different to how traditional neurotransmitters, like serotonin, interact with our cells. Serotonin cannot move inside cells and instead interacts with receptors on the cell surface. This discovery placed a new importance on a mechanism that had previously been under-researched.
Why these internal receptors are there is not known. The authors propose numerous theories, including that internal receptors might simply be “back-ups” ready to replace those on the cell surface. However, the hypothesis that’s attracted the most attention is that these internal receptors could interact with naturally occurring psychedelics, which, like psilocybin, can move inside cells. One such substance, DMT, exists in our brains at concentrations just as high as serotonin. Therefore it is not outlandish to assume that it plays just as much of a role in regulating our thoughts and emotions.
DMT has been associated with the onset of schizophrenia and Vargas et al. suggest that their mechanism could explain this link. Discovering the mechanism behind a disease is one of the first steps in understanding how we can treat it, so this finding is important in more effectively treating a condition as complex and misunderstood as schizophrenia.
Furthermore, some have argued that this paper is a promising find for those who push the use of psychedelic therapy. Depression and other disorders are associated with a reduction in neuron size or growth, and therefore psychedelics that promote neuron growth could be prescribed to treat these conditions. Around 30% of patients with depression do not get relief from traditional antidepressants, such as SSRIs, which interact with serotonin. Therefore it’s imperative the researchers begin to investigate alternative treatments.
However, it’s important to note that Vargas et al never state their support for using psychedelics in medicine. The paper doesn’t even use psychedelics, but a substance found within them; it just identifies a mechanism and isn’t definitive of its applications in medicine. Some work has indicated that patients exposed to psilocybin experience an alleviation of depression symptoms. However, this work focused predominantly on American university students and therefore massively underrepresents marginalised groups. These results might not reflect how effective treatment could be when rolled out to the whole population.
This paper is an example of how reporting on scientific breakthroughs can sometimes jump to conclusions, potentially misleading or scaring people about the future of medical treatment. The study by Vargas et al represents an area of science that is very much in its infancy. We are only just beginning to truly unlock the mechanisms within our brains. But someday, very far into the future, these foundational studies might be translated into revolutionary medical treatments.