Serotonin, Psychedelics and Depression
Note: This post is part of a Nature Blog Focus on hallucinogenic drugs in medicine and mental health, inspired by a recent Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper, The neurobiology of psychedelic drugs: implications for the treatment of mood disorders, by Franz Vollenweider & Michael Kometer. That article will be available, free (once you register), until September 23. For more information on this Blog Focus, see the “Table of Contents” here.
Ketamine, an anesthetic with hallucinogenic properties, which is attracting a lot of interest at the moment as a treatment for depression.
Ketamine, however, is not a “classical” psychedelic like the drugs that gave the 60s its unique flavor and left us with psychedelic rock, acid house and colorful artwork. Classical psychedelics are the focus of this post.
The best known are LSD (“acid”), mescaline, found in the peyote and a few other species of cactus, and psilocybin, from “magic” mushrooms of the Psilocybe genus. Yet there are literally hundreds of related compounds. Most of them are described in loving detail in the two heroic epics of psychopharmacology, PIKHaL and TIKHaL, written by chemists and trip veterans Alexander and Ann Shulgin.
The chemistry of psychedelics is closely linked with that of depression and antidepressants. All classical psychedelics are 5HT2A receptor agonists. Most of them have other effects on the brain as well, which contribute to the unique effects of each drug, but 5HT2A agonism is what they all have in common.
5HT2A receptors are excitatory receptors expressed throughout the brain, and are especially dense in the key pyramidal cells of the cerebral cortex. They’re normally activated by serotonin (5HT), which is the neurotransmitter that’s most often thought of as being implicated in depression. The relationship between 5HT and mood is very complicated, and depression isn’t simply a disorder of “low serotonin”, but there’s strong evidence that it is involved.
There’s one messy detail, which is that not quite all 5HT2A agonists are hallucinogenic. Lisuride, a drug used in Parkinson’s disease, is closely related to LSD, and is a strong 5HT2A agonist, but it has no psychedelic effects. It’s recently been shown that LSD and lisuride have different molecular effects on cortical cells, even though they act on the same receptor – in other words, there’s more to 5HT2A than simply turning it “on” and “off”.
How could psychedelics help to treat mental illness? On the face of it, the acute effects of these drugs – hallucinations, altered thought processes and emotions – sound rather like the symptoms of mental illness themselves, and indeed psychedelics have been referred to as “psychotomimetic” – mimicking psychosis.
There are two schools of thought here: psychological and neurobiological.
The psychological approach ruled the first wave of psychedelic psychiatry, in the 50s and 60s. Psychiatry, especially in America, was dominated by Freudian theories of the unconscious. On this view, mental illness was a product of conflicts between unconscious desires and the conscious mind. The symptoms experienced by a particular patient were distressing, of course, but they also provided clues to the nature of their unconscious troubles.
It was tempting to see the action of psychedelics as a weakening of the filters which kept the unconscious, unconscious – allowing repressed material to come into awareness. The only other time this happened, according to Freud, was during dreams. That’s why Freud famously called the interpretation of dreams the “royal road to the unconscious”.
Psychedelics offered analysts the tantalizing prospect of confronting the unconscious face-to-face, while awake, instead of having to rely on the patient’s memory of their previous dreams. To enthusiastic Freudians, this promised to revolutionize therapy, in the same way that the x-ray had done so much for surgery. The “dreamlike” nature of many aspects of the psychedelic experience seemed to confirm this.
Not all psychedelic therapists were orthodox Freudians, however. There were plenty of other theories in circulation, many of them inspired by the theorists’ own drug experiences. Stanislav Grof, Timothy Leary and others saw the psychedelic state of consciousness as the key to attaining spiritual, philosophical and even mystical insights, whether one was “ill” or “healthy” – and indeed, they often said that mental “illness” was itself a potential source of spiritual growth.
Like many things, psychiatry has changed since the 60s. Psychotherapy is currently dominated by cognitive-behavioural (CBT) theory, and Freudian ideas have gone distinctly out of fashion. It remains to be seen what CBT would make of LSD, but the basic idea – that carefully controlled use of drugs could help patients to “break through” psychological barriers to treatment – seems likely to remain at the heart of their continued use.
The other view is that these drugs could have direct biological effects which lead to improvements in mood. Repeated use of LSD, for example, has been shown to rapidly induce down-regulation of 5HT2A receptors. Presumably, this is the brain’s way of “compensating” for prolonged 5HT2A activation. This is probably why tolerance to the effects of psychedelics rapidly develops, something that’s long been known (and regretted) by heavy users.
Vollenweider and Kometeris note that this is interesting, because 5HT2A blockers are used as antidepressants – the drugs nefazadone and mirtazapine are the best known today, but most of the older tricyclic antidepressants are also 5HT2A antagonists. Atypical antipsychotics, which are also used in depression, are potent 5HT2A antagonists as well.
So indirectly suppressing 5HT2A might be one biological mechanism by which psychedelics improve mood. However, questions remain about how far this could explain any therapeutic effects of these drugs. Psychedelic-induced 5HT2A down-regulation is presumably temporary – and if all we need to do is to knock out 5HT2A, it would surely be easiest to just use an antagonist…
Vollenweider FX, & Kometer M (2010). The neurobiology of psychedelic drugs: implications for the treatment of mood disorders. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11 (9), 642-51 PMID: 20717121