Psychedelics: How They Work and Their Effect on the Human Brain

In the past century, many psychedelic compounds have been prohibited & more strongly monitored by major world powers. In the latter half of the twentieth in the United States, for example, the war on drugs began culminating with the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Psychedelics were viewed as solely dangerous – until recently. In many studies, researchers are finding the capability of psychedelics to aid in curing mental illness ranging from depression to addiction.

John Hopkins University, an establishment pioneering the role psychedelics can have in aiding in mental illness, found “the [cigarette] abstinence rate for study participants was 80 percent after six months”, a substantial increase over varenicline (35 percent success rate). Furthermore, varenicline is known to be the most effective smoking cessation drug.

But how does it work?

While the specifics of why psychedelics work is unclear, the mechanisms behind the psychedelic experience have been identified.

LSD & psilocin act on 5-HT2A receptors. 5-HT2A receptors are found in many parts of the brain including prefrontal & parietal cortices. These substances are 5-HT2A receptor agonists (meaning they bind to the receptors & stimulate their signal transduction pathway). 5-HT2A receptors are the same receptors which serotonin (5-HT) stimulates. Essentially, the 5-HT2A receptor agonists become a sort of ‘pseudo-serotonin’ through the stimulation of the same receptors which serotonin acts on. However, there is a key differentiation  5-HT2A receptor agonists other psychedelics in the way they stimulate the 5-HT2A receptor itself rather than stimulating the body to release more serotonin as some psychedelics (e.g., MDMA) do.

Many have speculated on the enhancement of cognitive capabilities while under the influence of 5-HT2A receptor agonists. The results of a study performed on rabbits by Drexel University’s Department of Pharmacology and Physiology suggests stimulation of 5-HT2A receptor agonists is beneficial towards learning. While the tested 5-HT2A receptor antagonists did not retard learning as a whole, the tested 5-HT2A receptor agonists proved consistently beneficial for learning. Some of the antagonists acted neutrally on the rabbits, having neither a positive nor negative effect on learning while the agonists were solely positive towards cognitive enhancement. Overall, the stimulation of 5-HT2A receptors seems to be beneficial to mental capability.

Although psychedelics are seemingly extraneous to cognitive repair (and even enhancement) now, there is a very real capability psychedelics of certain qualities could come to help humankind as a whole. A new phenomenon called ‘microdosing’ is emerging in which a dose of psychedelics whose effects are unnoticeable is administered in order to augment the capability of a person. The demographic range of said ‘microdosers’ is widely varied ranging from programmers to artists to restaurant workers; many testify to the positive effects of microdosing. One such person heard of the phenomenon and decided to try microdosing. The doser, likens the effect of microdosing & interacting with ideas to “playing with blocks, and [the project] seemed like the perfect thing to work on.” The idea of microdosing sounds simply heavenly, but it is simultaneously important to maintain a realistic view. Being relatively new, the results of long term microdosing is unknown on the human brain. There is still much to be discovered concerning psychedelics, though there is great potential.

About Mr. Mohn

Biology Teacher

This entry was written by Sam H. and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Psychedelics: How They Work and Their Effect on the Human Brain

  1. Dylan Barker says:

    Wow what an interesting article. Very well written and it looks like you really did your research.

    • Sam Hastings says:

      Thanks, Dylan Barker! It was a joy to write and I had a great time researching it.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

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