The Promise of Psychedelic Science

This commentary (2021) to a special psychedelic edition of ASC Pharmacology & Translational Science highlights the psychedelic science being conducted, and the interdisciplinary efforts that are required to advance the field forward.


From the first paragraph (as this commentary has no abstract): “The use of psychedelics as medicines is perhaps one of the most exciting developments in neuropsychiatry given that these drugs appear to produce both rapid and sustained therapeutic effects across multiple neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance use disorder (SUD). Understanding exactly how these powerful drugs affect brain function will require all the tools of modern science as well as the combined efforts of chemists, molecular biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and clinicians.

Author: David. E. Olson


The chemical structure of (psychedelic) molecules is (partly) responsible for the function that they serve. This is also called the structure-activity relationship (SAR). New techniques, which are also being used in other studies in the same publication, are showing that computer simulations of SAR will play a key role in learning more about psychedelics and their activity.

The disconnect between the psychedelic/hallucinogenic and therapeutic response that Olson and colleagues (Cameron et al., 2020) found with tabernanthalog, is also being found by other researchers. Flanagan and colleagues (2020) “found that there is no correlation between anti-inflammatory and hallucinogenic effects, suggesting that psychedelics might be used as lead structures to identify non-hallucinogenic compounds capable of reducing inflammation.”

The ability of psychedelics to help neurons (re)grow is also highlighted. Ly and colleagues (2020) have for instance shown that a short stimulation of neuronal cells with LSD or ketamine led to sustained growth. The race is now on to find out how psychedelics work to increase plasticity, to both understand this process and then to design (possibly) even ‘better’ molecules that can serve this function.

The discussion about the need for subjective acute psychedelic effects for enduring effects is also highlighted. A topic that has been (very collegially) been discussed in Yaden and Griffiths (2020) who argue for this point, and Olsen (2020) who argues that it isn’t necessary.

As we better understand psychedelic compounds, we keep on discovering potential new uses for them. Research by Bhat and colleagues (2020) engineered ibogaine analogues which can help with monoamine transporter folding defects (making the transportation of neurotransmitters between neurons more difficult).

Psychedelics can possibly also help in the prevention of suicides, although research in this area is only just starting. Research by Ross and colleagues (2020) on psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy is highlighted. In our database, you can find even more about suicidality, with most studies being done with ketamine.

Olson also highlights the research that has been done by Strickland and colleagues (2020) on music genres, but do note that the sample size here is terribly small (n=10).

Relevant to bringing psychedelics into the clinic (and beyond that) will be predictors of how someone will react to them. Psychological factors such as anxiety were studied by Stauffer and colleagues (2020) and a systematic review on this topic was done by Aday and colleagues (2021). They found that traits of absorption, openness, acceptance, and surrender correlated with more positive and mystical (MEQ30) experiences.

Improving the psychedelic experience by incorporating mindfulness techniques is further explored by Payne and colleagues (2021). Their perspective article proposes various synergies between mindfulness practice and psychedelics. The authors argue that psychedelics can form the compass (direction setting) and mindfulness the vehicle (integration).

We do need to tread lightly and as Johnson (2020) argues, not impose our own beliefs upon the participants/patients. Further ethical and intellectual property concerns are raised by Gerber and colleagues (2021).

Olson ends this commentary with the following note of caution: “While psychedelics have demonstrated enormous promise for combatting these illnesses, we must guard against hype, move cautiously toward therapeutic applications, and most importantly, conduct psychedelic research with the rigor demanded of modern science.”

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