DAVIS, Calif. — Normally, psychedelic drugs send users on a “trip” that alters their perception of reality. While these substances show promise at treating mental illness, their side-effects make using them legally and medically dubious. Now, researchers from the University of California-Davis have identified a psychedelic-like drug which won’t cause hallucinations like other narcotics. The discovery opens the possibility of using the drug as a treatment for depression and post traumatic stress disorder.
Scientists call the drug AAZ-A-154. It has the potential to repair chemical pathways in the brain, according to study authors.
“One of the problems with psychedelic therapies is that they require close guidance and supervision from a medical team,” says co-author and chemist Dr. David Olson in a media release. “A drug that doesn’t cause hallucinations could be taken at home.”
Experiments using a fluorescent sensor called psychLight showed the drug activates a gene that makes serotonin – the body’s “feel-good” hormone. Most common antidepressants, like Prozac, also work by triggering the serotonin 2A receptor.
“Serotonin reuptake inhibitors have long been used for treating depression, but we don’t know much about their mechanism. It’s like a black box,” adds senior author Professor Lin Tian. “This sensor allows us to image serotonin dynamics in real time when animals learn or are stressed and visualize the interaction between the compound of interest and the receptor in real time.”
Psychedelics help the brain to rewire itself
The study, appearing in the journal Cell, finds there is no hallucinogenic impact of AAZ-A-154. Therefore, patients taking it would also not have go through the negative experience of “coming down” from drug use.
Dr. Olson says his lab focused on the serotonin 2A receptor, adding that it’s a target of both psychedelic drugs and antipsychotic medications.
“Lin’s lab is a leader in developing sensors for neuromodulators like serotonin. It just made perfect sense for us to tackle this problem together,” Olson notes.
Experts believe one of the advantages of psychedelic drugs is they promote neural plasticity; allowing the brain to rewire itself. They open the door to a medication that works in a single dose or limited use, rather than taking a prescription indefinitely.
However, patients having to undergo a “psychedelic trip” raises ethical and health concerns. The serotonin 2A molecule belongs to a class of genes called GPCRs (G protein-coupled receptors).
“More than one-third of all FDA-approved drugs target GPCRs, so this sensor technology has broad implications for drug development,” Prof. Tian explains. “The special funding mechanisms of BRAIN Initiative from the National Institutes of Health allowed us to take a risky and radical approach to developing this technology, which could open the door to discovering better drugs without side effects and studying neurochemical signaling in the brain.”
Mental illness is becoming a common condition in America. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates one in five U.S. adults is living with some form of mental illness. That’s over 51 million people in the U.S. alone.
Previous research finds psilocybin, a constituent of psychedelic “magic mushrooms,” quickly reduces symptoms of mental illness. However, these drugs still produce harmful side-effects.
SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.