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Psychedelics in Psychiatry: Neuroplastic, Immunomodulatory, and Neurotransmitter Mechanisms

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Abstract

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. https://doi.org/10.1124/pharmrev.120.000056

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