Psychedelics Promote Structural and Functional Neural Plasticity

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SUMMARY

Atrophy of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) plays a key role in the pathophysiology of depression and related disorders. The ability to promote both structural and functional plasticity in the PFC has been hypothesized to underlie the fast-acting antidepressant properties of the dissociative anesthetic ketamine. Here, we report that, like ketamine, serotonergic psychedelics are capable of robustly increasing neuritogenesis and/or spinogenesis both in vitro and in vivo. These changes in neuronal structure are accompanied by increased synapse number and function, as measured by fluorescence microscopy and electrophysiology. The structural changes induced by psychedelics appear to result from stimulation of the TrkB, mTOR, and 5-HT2A signaling pathways and could possibly explain the clinical effectiveness of these compounds. Our results underscore the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and, importantly, identify several lead scaffolds for medicinal chemistry efforts focused on developing plasticity-promoting compounds as safe, effective, and fast-acting treatments for depression and related disorders.

Atrophy of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) plays a key role in the pathophysiology of depression and related disorders. The ability to promote both structural and functional plasticity in the PFC has been hypothesized to underlie the fast-acting antidepressant properties of the dissociative anesthetic ketamine. Here, we report that, like ketamine, serotonergic psychedelics are capable of robustly increasing neuritogenesis and/or spinogenesis both in vitro and in vivo. These changes in neuronal structure are accompanied by increased synapse number and function, as measured by fluorescence microscopy and electrophysiology. The structural changes induced by psychedelics appear to result from stimulation of the TrkB, mTOR, and 5-HT2A signaling pathways and could possibly explain the clinical effectiveness of these compounds. Our results underscore the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and, importantly, identify several lead scaffolds for medicinal chemistry efforts focused on developing plasticity-promoting compounds as safe, effective, and fast-acting treatments for depression and related disorders.

inTRODUCTION

Neuropsychiatric diseases, including mood and anxiety disorders, are some of the leading causes of disability worldwide and place an enormous economic burden on society (). Approximately one-third of patients will not respond to current antidepressant drugs, and those who do will usually require at least 2–4 weeks of treatment before they experience any beneficial effects (). Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction share common neural circuitry () and have high comorbidity (). A preponderance of evidence from a combination of human imaging, postmortem studies, and animal models suggests that atrophy of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) plays a key role in the pathophysiology of depression and related disorders and is precipitated and/or exacerbated by stress (). These structural changes, such as the retraction of neurites, loss of dendritic spines, and elimination of synapses, can potentially be counteracted by compounds capable of promoting structural and functional neural plasticity in the PFC (), providing a general solution to treating all of these related diseases. However, only a relatively small number of compounds capable of promoting plasticity in the PFC have been identified so far, each with significant drawbacks (). Of these, the dissociative anesthetic ketamine has shown the most promise, revitalizing the field of molecular psychiatry in recent years.

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IN BRIEF

Ly et al. demonstrate that psychedelic compounds such as LSD, DMT, and DOI increase dendritic arbor complexity, promote dendritic spine growth, and stimulate synapse formation. These cellular effects are similar to those produced by the fast-acting antidepressant ketamine and highlight the potential of psychedelics for treating depression and related disorders. Neuropsychiatric diseases, including mood and anxiety disorders, are some of the leading causes of disability worldwide and place an enormous economic burden on society.

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