How do psychedelics work? New research seeks to find out

New research from UC Davis may be the first step to understanding one of the key questions about psychedelic medicine: how do psychedelics work, and what makes them different from other mental health medications?

While clinical evidence supporting psychedelics’ potential for treating mental health conditions like depression, PTSD, and substance use disorder is building, it is still unclear exactly how psychedelics work.

Multiple studies have confirmed that psychedelics increase connections between cortical neurons, which may help create new connections in the brain, helping it to rewire itself. There is also general consensus among researchers that one particular receptor on brain cells, called “5-HT2A,” is key. The 5-HT2A receptors are activated by a variety of pharmaceutical drugs as well as all psychedelics. But strangely, none of the pharmaceutical drugs that activate these receptors create hallucinogenic effects that psychedelics do.

While investigating why that might be the case, researchers found that this difference might be down to the location of the receptors involved. Unlike most cells in the body, cortical neurons have 5-HT2A receptors both on the outside and inside. Serotonin cannot activate 5-HT2A receptors located inside of certain brain cells — but psychedelics can. This difference could explain why psychedelics invoke hallucinations where traditional pharmaceuticals do not, and could be the first step to understanding how exactly psychedelics work to improve mental health conditions.

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