OPEN Foundation

Day: 1 January 2021

Psychedelic Medicines in Major Depression: Progress and Future Challenges


The volume of research on the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs has been increasing during the last decades. Partly because of the need of innovative treatments in psychiatry, several studies have assessed the safety and efficacy of drugs like psilocybin or ayahuasca for a wide range of mental disorders, including major depression. The first section of this chapter will offer an introduction to psychedelic research, including a brief historical overview and discussions about appropriate terminology. In the second section, the recently published clinical trials in which psychedelic drugs were administered to patients will be analysed in detail. Then, in the third section, the main neurobiological mechanisms of these drugs will be described, noting that while some of these mechanisms could be potentially associated with their therapeutic properties, they are commonly used as adjuvants in psychotherapeutic processes. The last section suggests future challenges for this groundbreaking field of research and therapy.

Bouso, J. C., Ona, G., Dos Santos, R. G., & Hallak, J. (2021). Psychedelic Medicines in Major Depression: Progress and Future Challenges. Advances in experimental medicine and biology, 1305, 515–533.

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A Systematic Review of the MDMA Model to Address Social Impairment in Autism

Background: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by repetitive behaviours, cognitive rigidity/inflexibility, and social-affective impairment. Unfortunately, no gold-standard treatments exist to alleviate the core socio-behavioural impairments of ASD. Meanwhile, the prosocial empathogen/entactogen 3,4-methylene-dioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) is known to enhance sociability and empathy in both humans and animal models of psychological disorders.

Objective: We review the evidence obtained from behavioural tests across the current literature, showing how MDMA can induce prosocial effects in animals and humans, where controlled experiments were able to be performed.

Methods: Six electronic databases were consulted. The search strategy was tailored to each database. Only English-language papers were reviewed. Behaviours not screened in this review may have affected the core ASD behaviours studied. Molecular analogues of MDMA have not been investigated.

Results: We find that the social impairments may potentially be alleviated by postnatal administration of MDMA producing prosocial behaviours in mostly the animal model.

Conclusion: MDMA and/or MDMA-like molecules appear to be an effective pharmacological treatment for the social impairments of autism, at least in animal models. Notably, clinical trials based on MDMA use are now in progress. Nevertheless, larger and more extended clinical studies are warranted to prove the assumption that MDMA and MDMA-like molecules have a role in the management of the social impairments of autism.

Chaliha, D., Mamo, J. C., Albrecht, M., Lam, V., Takechi, R., & Vaccarezza, M. (2021). A Systematic Review of the MDMA Model to Address Social Impairment in Autism. Current neuropharmacology, 19(7), 1101–1154.

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Psychedelics in Psychiatry: Neuroplastic, Immunomodulatory, and Neurotransmitter Mechanisms


Mounting evidence suggests safety and efficacy of psychedelic compounds as potential novel therapeutics in psychiatry. Ketamine has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration in a new class of antidepressants, and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) is undergoing phase III clinical trials for post-traumatic stress disorder. Psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) are being investigated in several phase II and phase I clinical trials. Hence, the concept of psychedelics as therapeutics may be incorporated into modern society. Here, we discuss the main known neurobiological therapeutic mechanisms of psychedelics, which are thought to be mediated by the effects of these compounds on the serotonergic (via 5-HT2A and 5-HT1A receptors) and glutamatergic [via N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) and α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA) receptors] systems. We focus on 1) neuroplasticity mediated by the modulation of mammalian target of rapamycin-, brain-derived neurotrophic factor-, and early growth response-related pathways; 2) immunomodulation via effects on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, nuclear factor ĸB, and cytokines such as tumor necrosis factor-α and interleukin 1, 6, and 10 production and release; and 3) modulation of serotonergic, dopaminergic, glutamatergic, GABAergic, and norepinephrinergic receptors, transporters, and turnover systems. We discuss arising concerns and ways to assess potential neurobiological changes, dependence, and immunosuppression. Although larger cohorts are required to corroborate preliminary findings, the results obtained so far are promising and represent a critical opportunity for improvement of pharmacotherapies in psychiatry, an area that has seen limited therapeutic advancement in the last 20 years. Studies are underway that are trying to decouple the psychedelic effects from the therapeutic effects of these compounds. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Psychedelic compounds are emerging as potential novel therapeutics in psychiatry. However, understanding of molecular mechanisms mediating improvement remains limited. This paper reviews the available evidence concerning the effects of psychedelic compounds on pathways that modulate neuroplasticity, immunity, and neurotransmitter systems. This work aims to be a reference for psychiatrists who may soon be faced with the possibility of prescribing psychedelic compounds as medications, helping them assess which compound(s) and regimen could be most useful for decreasing specific psychiatric symptoms.

Inserra, A., De Gregorio, D., & Gobbi, G. (2021). Psychedelics in Psychiatry: Neuroplastic, Immunomodulatory, and Neurotransmitter Mechanisms. Pharmacological reviews, 73(1), 202–277.

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4 October - Online psychedelic Q&A with Rick Doblin (founder and president of MAPS)