Psychedelic spurs growth of neural connections lost in depression

Studies into the effects of psilocybin on the brain in regard to potential treatments for depression have been going on for years. However, the full range of benefits is still becoming clear. A study conducted by Yale in 2021 has uncovered yet another great use of psilocybin, the regrowth of neural connections lost through depression.

Depression and The Loss of Neural Connections  

Depression tends to be more complex than a chemical imbalance within the brain and can be caused by several factors including the brain’s inability to regulate emotions and mood variations, stress, medical issues, one’s current quality of life, and even genetics. When any or multiple of these factors exist, the effects on the brain are substantial to neural connections within the brain in their ability to function, grow, and connect properly to one another.

Beyond the connections within the brain, research has also shown that the structure of the brain, specifically the hippocampus where memory is stored, is smaller within depressed people. The Journal of Neuroscience published an fMRI study of 24 women who had a significant history of depression that showed, on average, these women had a hippocampus 9%-13% smaller than women who were not depressed. When the hippocampus experiences a size reduction, the ability of the mind to process memory is weakened and the chances of potential pathological stress responses to occur increases which can lead to an even deeper depressive state.

In the past, behavioral and therapeutic modalities of treatment were mainly utilized to reverse these structural alterations to the mind caused by depression, according to Yale there is a new modality being explored.

Yale Connects Psilocybin and Depression

It didn’t take much for Yale to connect the incredible benefits of psilocybin’s effects on depression, one single dose in this case. Researchers at Yale administered a single dose of psilocybin to mice and found not only an immediate increase in the connection of neurons but a long-lasting one.

Postdoctoral associate Lingxiao Shao and Alex Kwan, associate professor of psychiatry and of neuroscience at Yale, stated, “We not only saw a 10% increase in the number of neuronal connections but also they were on average about 10% larger, so the connections were stronger as well.” They then went on to note that the “structural remodeling” of the brain occurred within 24 hours and persisted for a month, meaning that there were long-term benefits to the administration within the brain.

Furthermore, when any form of depression occurs, dendritic spines of neurons in the prefrontal cortex tend to disappear, causing a reduction in connectivity and function within the brain. These dendritic spines were also studied and were found to increase in number and size within 24 hours of being introduced to psilocybin which was also long-lasting over a month. In the future, researchers at Yale hope to improve upon this study to investigate how psilocybin can create increased neural size and density.

Mood and Behavioral Improvements

Throughout the study, the mice were introduced to several stressors to see how they were able to manage their mood and behavior before, during, and after the use of psilocybin. It was shown that even after a single dose, the mice were able to offer behavioral improvements to the stressors being presented and that these effects once again were long-lasting.

Many people use psilocybin today for this exact reason. Even smaller doses such as the ones in the study, or a microdose, can alter our brains on a cellular level and create an uplift in mood. Within those who experience depression, this can alleviate feelings of hopelessness, isolation, and despair while promoting a feeling of connectedness and cultivating a sense of self-worth and trust in oneself.

Recovering From Depression

The road to recovery from a depressive episode is often a long one filled with the work of riding self-sabotaging behavior and expanding into one’s potential while also knowing that it is a lifelong battle. This battle is being made easier with the introduction of psilocybin and microdosing and the ability to cultivate a good quality of life. By being able to reverse the damaging effects of depression on the brain and regrow the lost neural connections, there is hope for a more sustainable recovery for those who suffer from depression.

Too often depression leads to irreversible damage or suicide, with the effects of psilocybin on the brain and the positive benefits of decreased signs of anxiety, boosted moods with better management of emotions, and an increased sense of self in connection to the world, many now another positive option for treatment.

The Future of Mental Health

As the mental health industry continues to open itself up to new modalities of treatments with the use of psilocybin, researchers note that this discovery is changing the approach in therapy for mental illnesses of all types, even beyond depression. These changes come within a shift in treatment modalities and with systemic changes in how psilocybin is classified as a drug and its utilization.

Psilocybin throughout the world is becoming decriminalized as these revelations come about. In hopes of ending the stigma around psychedelics and promoting their benefits, many countries are legalizing the use of psilocybin as research proves its benefits.

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Sheline, Y. I., Sanghavi, M., Mintun, M. A., & Gado, M. H. (1999). Depression duration but not age predicts hippocampal volume loss in medically healthy women with recurrent major depression.

The Journal of neuroscience: the Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 19(12), 5034–5043.