Meridith Kohut/The New York Times

Psychedelics, commonly known as "magic mushrooms," leads to different effects in different areas of the brain.

February 5, 2023

Psychedelics May Alleviate Mental Illness, New Cornell Study Finds

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The Kwan Lab, a systems neuroscience lab in the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering, published a study in May 2021 that psilocybin, also known as “magic mushrooms,” can lead to fairly long-lasting structural changes in the frontal cortex of the brain. The effects of psilocybin on neuronal structure has led researchers to believe that these drugs have the potential to act as treatments for mental illnesses, such as depression.

Psychedelics, such as psilocybin, have been widely regarded as party drugs because of their side effects, which include hallucinations and feelings of euphoria. Recently, psychedelics have been increasing in popularity for treatment of mental health diseases. Recently, psychedelics have been increasing in popularity for treatment of mental health diseases.  

“One of the interesting things about psychedelics is how in different brain areas, it leads to very different effects,” Prof. Alex Kwan, biomedical engineering, said.

The Kwan Lab published their findings in a paper titled “Psilocybin Induces Rapid and Persistent Growth of Dendritic Spines in Frontal Cortex in Vivo,” stating that psilocybin causes neuroplasticity in neurons located in the prefrontal cortex that lasts about a month after the initial dose of psilocybin. In a mouse model, Kwan and his lab found that there was a 10 percent increase in spine size and density after a single dose of psilocybin — which occurred rapidly within 24 hours — and was still present one month later. 

In order to understand the effect of psychedelics on the brain, Kwan and his lab utilized microscopy. He emphasized the importance of being able to look at the organisms while they are alive to determine if there are changes in brain structure. 

Neuroplasticity signifies that neurons in the prefrontal cortex are able to change and reorganize in order to carry out everyday activities, such as learning. This is different from the dorsal raphe, a different part of the brain that has been more thoroughly researched. 

“This is how we found out that psilocybin leads to some increases in neuronal connection,” Kwan said. Optical imaging, he later stated, is a very promising tool for studying these drugs. 

The neural activity in the dorsal raphe, responsible for distribution of serotonin to other parts of the brain, shuts down when psychedelics are introduced, unlike the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for activities such as motor functions and emotion expression and regulation. 

There are differences in the way these two parts of the brain are reacting to the drug, and the reason for this may be in the way the drug affects the brain’s structure.

“These drugs may cause changes in the neuronal architecture,” Kwan said. “The connectivity between the neurons and how neurons connect to each other is actually changed by psychedelics, and these changes remain even after the drug is gone.” 

However, it is not fully understood how these drugs affect the individual and group structure of neurons. Kwan and his research lab are working to understand how they affect hallucinations.

“[There are clinical trials] showing psychedelics are likely going to be important and useful for treating mental illnesses,” Kwan said.  

While the psychedelic effects of these drugs do not last very long, they have lingering impacts on other parts of the brain.

For example, the drug psilocybin, which causes hallucinations, usually lasts anywhere from three to six hours. However, in clinical trials, the effects of this drug on treating depression are much longer. 

Kwan explained that scientists are interested in seeing how these psychedelics could act as potential treatments for mental illnesses, such as depression, given that some of the reduction of depression symptoms can last anywhere from at least two to three weeks.

“There’s a few indications where I think there’s already some good evidence with a couple of clinical trials, if not more, suggesting that psilocybin assisted psychotherapy could be quite useful for treating these disorders, which is quite exciting,” Kwan said.