Can Psychedelics Treat Alzheimer's Disease?
Can Psychedelics Treat Alzheimer's Disease?

An aging population is a double-edged sword. On one hand, people living longer demonstrates that modern medicine is working and people are generally living healthier lives. On the other hand, an aging population means that conditions like Alzheimer’s disease are more widespread than ever before.

But the psychedelic movement offers renewed hope.

A recent paperpublished in Current Topics in Behavioural Sciences highlights that psychedelics may be used as a tool to fight this degenerative brain disease, and paves the way for a new line of research, where psychedelics can be used to treat specific symptoms of this type of dementia. 

In the United States, more than five million adults are living with Alzheimer’s, with the figure expected to triple in the next 30 years. This is a rapid cause for concern — there is, of course, no magic bullet for the treatment of Alzheimer’s.

However, Dr. Albert Garcia-Romeu and his colleagues from Johns Hopkins University, argue that psychedelics could soften the blow of this horrendous condition on the individual and society. 

Alzheimer’s Disease in the Brain and Mind

Within the paper, the authors highlight several potential brain-based causes of Alzheimer’s disease. Normal aging is associated with neurodegeneration — the decay of brain cells. However, Alzheimer’s patients display this to a pathological extent. For these patients, the widespread decay of neurons in important brain areas, like the hippocampus, can lead to clinical problems in learning and memory. 

Alzheimer’s has also been linked to brain inflammation. Why inflammation occurs in the brain is not so clear, but the effects of inflammation are as dire as neurodegeneration. Inflammation will impact general brain functioning, which can worsen the difficulties in learning and memory. 

These two brain-based impacts can also have a significant impact on mental health. According to the authors, more than 40% of Alzheimer’s patients show clinically significant symptoms of depression. These all contribute to a very poor quality-of-life for Alzheimer’s patients.

Psychedelics and Alzheimer’s

Remarkably, there is a significant overlap between the effects of psychedelics in the brain, and some of the potential causes of Alzheimer’s disease, highlighting a fruitful exploration to enhance patients’ quality of life. 

Psychedelics have an extraordinary effect on the brain. Work at Dr. David Olson’s lab at UC Davis, has found that psychedelics can have huge neuroplastic effects – in other words, a high dose of psychedelics may help the brain to change and grow in these important areas at the front of your brain, implicated in Alzheimer’s.

Moreover, substances such as LSD and psilocybin have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Garcia-Romeu and his colleagues argue that the microbiological action of psychedelics may therefore help fight brain-based symptoms in early Alzheimer’s patients.

The authors also highlight that psychedelics have significant positive effects on mental health, and even memory. They write, “acute changes in autobiographical memory during psychedelic effects have also been reported, suggesting LSD and psilocybin can facilitate recall and vividness of salient life memories, a potentially relevant mechanism for treatment of [Alzheimer’s disease].”

Future Clinical Trials

Hope is further bolstered for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s — this promising line of research to treat Alzheimer’s with psychedelics is currently being carried out at Johns Hopkins University. Researchers are administering both moderate and high doses of psilocybin over an eight week course, and measuring patients mood and quality of life succeeding the therapy. 

The research, however, is a preliminary step forward, simply to establish the exact effects on patients with early effects of the disease.

The authors conclude, “In sum, three converging biological pathways may be responsible for induced neural plasticity resulting in long-lasting and profound effects following psychedelic administration … In addition, classic psychedelics ’ antidepressant and anxiolytic effects could provide important inroads for promoting psychological benefits in patients struggling with AD and neuropsychiatric comorbidities such as depression and apathy.” 

Tying together the biological, the psychological, and the cognitive represents a ground-breaking multi-pronged approach to tackling this devastating condition.

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