Psychedelic drugs like MDMA and LSD are illegal substances in the vast majority of countries. However, a new study has shown that they could be capable of rewiring the brain in a way that could help deal with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and addiction disorders.

The researchers found that these drugs were able to stimulate growth of new connections in the brain cells, meaning they could be the “next generation” of treatments for those suffering from mental health problems. The researchers also noted that, not only are the drugs more effective than some existing treatments, they were found to be safer and had less side effects.

Dr David Olson, who lead the research team said: “One of the hallmarks of depression is that the neurites in the prefrontal cortex – a key brain region that regulates emotion, mood, and anxiety – those neurites tend to shrivel up.” These same changes that appear in the brain also appear in other conditions like anxiety, PTSD and addiction. By stimulating these parts of the brain and reconnecting them, doctors could be able to treat an array of conditions.

As part of the research, the scientists assessed the effectiveness of several drugs. These included DMT, magic mushrooms, amphetamines like MDMA, and ergolines like LSD. They found that all of the substances boosted brain connections. Even when compared to ketamine, psychedelics were found to have equal effects, or in some cases the effects were greater.

Ketamine nasal sprays are currently in the process of being approved for depression, as they’ve shown to relieve symptoms in individuals who don’t respond to other treatments. But, there are concerns over the potential side effects, which include psychosis and the potential for it to be abused by patients.

Dr Olson noted: “The rapid effects of ketamine on mood and plasticity are truly astounding. The big question we were trying to answer was whether or not other compounds are capable of doing what ketamine does. People have long assumed that psychedelics are capable of altering neuronal structure, but this is the first study that clearly and unambiguously supports that hypothesis.”

He added: “Ketamine is no longer our only option. Our work demonstrates that there are a number of distinct chemical scaffolds capable of promoting plasticity like ketamine, providing additional opportunities for medicinal chemists to develop safer and more effective alternatives.”

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