Psychedelic drug triggers growth of new brain cells in mice

Psychedelic drug triggers growth of new brain cells in mice


Written by James Kingsland on November 17, 2020 — Fact checked by Rita Ponce, Ph.D.

Research in mice has found that N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), one of the active ingredients of the psychedelic tea ayahuasca, can spark the creation of new nerve cells and improve spatial learning and performance in memory tasks.


Share on PinterestAyahuasca is made from the leaves of Psychotria viridis.
Image credit: Alison Wright/Getty Images

The scientists behind the new study speculate that the drug could serve to treat neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Neurodegenerative diseases involve the progressive loss of nerve cells in affected parts of the brain or, in some cases, in other locations of the nervous system. One way to reverse the damage might be to restore the capacity to produce new nerve cells, which is known as neurogenesis.

The generation of most nerve cells in the human body takes place before birth. However, some studies suggest that the creation of new neurons is possible in adulthood, though other researchers have disputed the findings.

Ayahuasca, a tea that shamans in several South American countries use for ritual and healing purposes, is emerging as a surprising potential source of drugs that could stimulate neurogenesis.

Preliminary studies have shown that the psychedelic brew has antidepressant properties. Its newly reported potential ability to promote the growth of new nerves in the brain may partly explain these effects.

Ayahuasca is made from the leaves of Psychotria viridis, a shrub that contains DMT, and the stem of Banisteriopsis caapi, a vine that contains chemicals called beta-carbolines. These chemicals prevent the breakdown of DMT in the gut.

Researchers at the Instituto de Investigaciones Biomédicas and the Network Center for Biomedical Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases, both in Madrid, recently led a study that found that the beta-carbolines in ayahuasca stimulate neurogenesis in mouse cell cultures.

They have now discovered that DMT also stimulates neurogenesis in mice. In addition, it improves their performance in tests of spatial learning and memory.

Brain plasticity

Together, the findings suggest that DMT increases “plasticity,” which is the ability of the brain to rewire in order to learn new things.

“This capacity to modulate brain plasticity suggests that it has great therapeutic potential for a wide range of psychiatric and neurological disorders, including neurodegenerative diseases,” says José Ángel Morales, who led the research.

“The challenge is to activate our dormant capacity to form neurons and thus replace the neurons that die as a result of the disease,” Morales adds. “This study shows that DMT is capable of activating neural stem cells and forming new neurons.”

Stem cells are precursor cells that can turn into a variety of different specialized cells, as the body requires.

In cell cultures, DMT stimulated stem cells to differentiate into three types of cells from the nervous system: neurons, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes. In a potential treatment, all three cells would be necessary to rebuild circuitry in the brain.

The study appears in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

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