A new study by Johns Hopkins University researchers suggests that psychedelics could reopen critical periods in the mammalian brain, offering the potential for drugs as a treatment option for those suffering from a wide range of debilitating conditions.
The findings, which were published this month in the journal Nature, provide a new explanation for how psychedelic drugs work, say the scientists, and suggest the potential to treat a wider range of conditions, such as stroke and deafness, beyond those in current drug studies, such as depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. The scientists also provide a new look at the molecular mechanisms influenced by psychedelics, according to the university.
Critical periods refer to when mammals are most sensitive to signals from their surroundings that can influence periods of brain development and have been shown to perform functions such as helping birds learn to sing and helping humans to learning a new language, relearning fine motor skills after a stroke and establishing dominance of one eye over the other, the university says.
There is a window of time in which the mammalian brain is much more susceptible and open to learning from the environment, said Gl Dlen, an associate professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. This window will close at some point and then the brain will become much less open to new learning.
For the newly released study, Dlens’ team of researchers examined the effects of ibogaine, ketamine, LSD, MDMA and psilocybin on adult male mice, looking specifically at the reopening potential of five psychedelic drugs and building on existing research that showed an ability of drugs to change normal perceptions of existence and allow for a sense of discovery about oneself or the world.
Johns Hopkins has a breakdown of the results:
The research team conducted a proven behavioral test to understand how easily adult male mice learn from their social environment. They trained mice to develop an association between an environment related to social interaction and another environment related to being alone. By comparing the time spent in each environment after administering the psychedelic drug to the mice, the researchers were able to see if the critical period opened up in the adult mice, allowing them to learn the value of a social environment, a behavior normally learned from young. For mice given ketamine, the critical period of social reward learning remained open in the mice for 48 hours. With psilocybin, the open state lasted for two weeks. For mice treated with MDMA, LSD and ibogaine, the critical period remained open for two, three and four weeks, respectively. The researchers say the length of time the critical period was open in mice appears to roughly correspond to the average length of time people self-report the acute effects of each psychedelic drug.
Dlen says the report gives us another clue that the duration of the acute effects of psychedelic drugs may be the reason why each drug may have shorter or longer effects at the onset of the critical period.
The open state of the critical period may be an opportunity for a post-treatment integration period to maintain the learning state, Dlen adds. Too often, after undergoing a procedure or treatment, people return to their busy, chaotic lives which can be overwhelming. Doctors may want to view the period of time after a dose of the psychedelic drug as a time to heal and learn, much like we do open heart surgery.
Psychedelics have yielded enormous scientific and medical breakthroughs in recent years, with promising new studies coming out on an almost weekly basis. Last month, a study of psilocybin’s effect on mice suggested that magic mushrooms could be an innovative treatment for patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
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