LSD and ketamine, two powerful hallucinogens, are also potential cures for depression, OCD, and anxiety. Two studies published this week, in Science and Nature, confirm that hallucinogenic drugs stimulate healthy brain activity, even promoting the growth of neurons.


Ketamine and depression

The study in Science, released today, focused entirely on the drug ketamine. Used frequently as an animal sedative, ketamine can also be used to sedate humans and is also taken recreationally because of its hallucinogenic and euphoric effects. Molecular psychiatrist Nanxin Li and colleagues dosed rats with modest amounts of ketamine, and observed that the drug boosted signaling between neurons in the brain, and even led to healthy growth of synapses. (Chronic depression can be linked to inhibited synaptic growth.) Ultimately, they concluded that ketamine might be useful in treating depression because it increases brain activity instantly - so there is no need to wait weeks or months for the drug to take effect.

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In the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Franz X. Vollenweider and Michael Kometer gave a broad overview of research into hallucinogens over the past half century. They gathered together research from hundreds of studies on how hallucinogens like LSD, psilocybin, and ketamine affect the brains of healthy people - as well as people suffering from depression and other disorders.

Like Li and his colleagues, they found that countless studies show that hallucinogens promote healthy neural activity in the brain. The researchers also created a chart to show what test subjects' states of mind are, according to studies, when under the influence of various substances.

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Vollenweider and Kometer explain the diagram above:

"Quantifying altered states of consciousness was problematic in the early years of hallucinogen research. Today, however, there are validated instruments for assessing various aspects of consciousness. According to Dittrich, hallucinogen-induced altered states of consciousness can be reliably measured by the five-dimensional altered states of consciousness (5DASC) rating scale. This scale comprises five primary dimensions and their respective subdimensions (see the figure). The primary dimensions are ‘oceanic boundlessness' (shown by orange boxes), referring to positively experienced loss of ego boundaries that are associated with changes in the sense of time and emotions - ranging from heightened mood to sublime happiness and feelings of unity with the environment; ‘anxious ego-disintegration' (shown by purple boxes), including thought disorder and loss of self-control; ‘visionary restructuralization' (shown by blue boxes), referring to perceptual alterations (such as visual illusions and hallucinations), and altered meaning of percepts; acoustic alterations (not shown), including hypersensitivity to sound and auditory hallucinations; and altered vigilance (not shown)."

Some of these states of mind, such as "boundlessness," are directly linked to increased neural activity in fMRI studies. They conclude:

"The clinical findings and current understanding of the mechanisms of action of classical hallucinogens and dissociative anaesthetics converge on the idea that psychedelics might be useful in the treatment of major depression, anxiety disorders and OCD."

Looks like it's time to give hallucinogens a second chance as medicine.

Read the full scientific papers via Science and Nature Reviews Neuroscience


Top image by Alex Grey.