ITHACA, N.Y – A Cornell University researcher is using optical microscopy and other tools to map the brain’s neural response to psychedelics, an approach that could eventually lead to the development of fast-acting antidepressants and treatments for substance-use disorders and cluster headaches.
“We know more about the pharmacology, how psychedelics work at the structural level, interacting with the brain receptors. But there has been a big void in terms of understanding what they do to the brain itself, at the neural circuit level,” said Alex Kwan, associate professor of biomedical engineering. “There’s a chain of events that happen that ultimately lead to acute and longer-lasting behavioral changes that might be useful for treatment. But in between a lot of that is a black box.”
To synthesize the disparate scientific information and bring it up to date, Kwan and a team of collaborators authored a review paper that explains the basic neurobiology of how psychedelic drugs work at the chemical, molecular, neuronal and network levels, and raises topics for future exploration, such as the impact of compound psychedelics on different types of brain cells.
Kwan’s research primarily focuses on psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms. As psilocybin is already being tested in Phase II clinical trials, it is the most promising candidate for pharmaceutical development. Kwan’s lab is also looking at other compounds, such as 5-methoxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT), which is exuded by the glands of the Sonoran Desert Toad as a defense mechanism.
“Scientists used to put electrodes in a rat’s brain, and they would record one neuron at a time. But since then, the field of neuroscience has progressed tremendously,” Kwan said. “Now we have ways to record not one neuron, but tens of thousands. We have ways of controlling neural activity. We have much more rigorous methods to measure animal behavior.”
For more information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.