Emerging research suggests that there’s a link between psychedelics and neuroplasticity, and that using psychedelics may help you make long-term, positive changes to your brain.
Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to adapt in response to your experiences. High neuroplasticity allows you to learn new skills, break habits and form new ones, and change how you think in a lasting way.
Psychedelic drugs seem to increase neural plasticity, giving you a window to make significant changes to your life that will last a long time. Here’s a look at the connection between psychedelics and neuroplasticity and how they may be able to help you make large shifts in the way you think and behave.
What Are Psychedelics?
Psychedelics (also called hallucinogens) are a group of drugs that alter your perception of reality and your sense of self. The classical psychedelics include:
- LSD (acid)
- Psilocybin (mushrooms)
- Ayahuasca (contains DMT)
- Mescaline (peyote)
Psychedelics are known for their hallucinogenic effects, but they cause a variety of effects on perception, including:
- Visual and auditory hallucinations
- Altered sense of self
- Mystical experiences (the perception that you’re meeting God or connecting to the universe, for example)
- Ego death (loss of your sense of self; a feeling of connection to the world outside you)
- Increased creativity
- Increased openness
- Introspective thinking and insight
Psychedelics are federally illegal in the United States. However, they’re popular recreational drugs, and some of them have received Breakthrough Therapy status from the FDA for treating depression and PTSD.
How do psychedelics affect your brain?
Psychedelics act on serotonin receptors in your brain, increasing activity in brain regions that control your sensory perception, higher-order thinking, memory, and sense of self-identity. 1,2,3,4
According to recent research, psychedelics may also have secondary effects on your brain, including increased neuroplasticity.
What Is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to adapt or change in response to your experiences. It’s a fundamental process that’s behind learning, memory, starting or breaking habits, and many patterns that exist in human behavior.
For example, if you’re learning to play an instrument, you’re quite literally building new pathways between brain regions that previously weren’t connected. As you practice, neurons (the nerve cells in your brain) connect, and that pathway becomes stronger and stronger. Perhaps at first it’s difficult for you to pluck strings on a guitar and associate them with specific chords—but as you practice your brain changes, that pathway strengthens and fires more smoothly, and what was once a challenge becomes second nature.
High neuroplasticity allows you to acquire skills faster and make major shifts in your brain function. It also applies to lifestyle changes (like quitting cigarettes or starting a workout routine), negative thought patterns that may underlie depression or anxiety, and other behavioral shifts. 5,9
Increasing neuroplasticity may help you cement life changes and make them last long-term. 5,8
Neuroplasticity differs from neurogenesis, which is the creation of new brain cells. It is however related, because the creation of new brain cells could increase neuroplasticity.
What Are the Possible Effects of Psychedelics on Neuroplasticity?
Research on psychedelics and neuroplasticity is still young. However, several promising studies suggest that psychedelics may increase neuroplasticity. 9,11
Psilocybin and neuroplasticity
Psilocybin is the serotonergic psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms. The FDA has granted psilocybin Breakthrough Therapy status for both major depressive disorder and treatment-resistant depression.
One leading theory is that psilocybin works so well for depression because it enhances neuroplasticity. 9
Depression decreases neuroplasticity, which makes it more difficult for your brain to adapt to stressful situations and cope—which, in turn, can worsen depression. 6,7
Psilocybin may act as a sort of mental reset, bringing neuroplasticity levels back to normal and helping you break negative thought patterns and behaviors that are keeping you stuck in a depressive cycle. 9,10,12,13
Ketamine and neuroplasticity
Ketamine is not technically a psychedelic—it’s a dissociative and anesthetic.
However, ketamine behaves similarly to classical psychedelics and seems to share several of their benefits, particularly when it comes to depression 14 and PTSD. 15
A 2018 study found that ketamine enhances neuroplasticity in human brain cells that process dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in depression and anxiety disorder. The authors theorized that increased neuroplasticity may explain why ketamine triggers rapid improvement after only a few sessions in many people with treatment-resistant depression. 14
Several other studies have found that ketamine increases neuroplasticity. 9
However, it bears mentioning that at the time of this article’s publication, all research on ketamine and neuroplasticity has been in either cells or mice. So far there aren’t any human studies on the subject.
Other psychedelics and neuroplasticity
Extensive cell and animal studies have found that DMT, the active ingredient in Ayahuasca, also increases neuroplasticity. 10
To date, however, research in humans is rare, largely because psychedelics are illegal and it’s difficult to get approval to use them for research in healthy people.
That said, attitudes toward psychedelic research are changing, and the first major human study on psychedelics and neuroplasticity is currently underway. Its researchers are examining the effects of LSD (acid) on neuroplasticity in healthy people. The trial is set to finish by 2024. 16
What Are Alternatives to Psychedelics for Neuroplasticity?
Psychedelics are currently federally illegal in the United States. They can be difficult to obtain and taking them comes with a degree of legal risk.
If you want to increase your neuroplasticity, there are a few other things you can do. Dr. Marian Diamond, widely credited as the researcher who discovered neuroplasticity, wrote about five things you can do to maintain high neuroplasticity throughout your life 5:
- Newness. Learning new skills, languages, or ideas stimulates your brain in unfamiliar ways, enhancing your neural circuits.
- Challenge. Doing difficult things that push your mental and physical limits also increases neuroplasticity.
- Exercise. Working out increases neuroplasticity as well. Research shows that aerobic exercise like running or swimming is particularly good at stimulating neuroplasticity.
- Diet. Being overweight or obese decreases neuroplasticity, while healthy body weight and periods of caloric restriction stimulate it.
- Love. Satisfying interpersonal relationships with family, loved ones, and close friends increase neuroplasticity.
Things to Know about Psychedelics and Neuroplasticity
What are psychedelics?
Psychedelics (also called hallucinogens) are a class of mind-altering drugs that change your perception of reality and your sense of self. The four main classical psychedelics are LSD (acid), psilocybin (mushrooms), DMT (the active ingredient in Ayahuasca), and mescaline (peyote).
What is neuroplasticity?
- Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to adapt or change in response to the world around you.
- If you learn a new skill, you will physically build new pathways in your brain as you practice it.
- The stronger those pathways, the more automatic the skill becomes.
- Neuroplasticity influences your learning, habits, thought patterns, and repetitive behaviors.
- Increasing neuroplasticity makes it easier for you to learn new skills, form and break habits, and adopt new thought patterns or change old ones.
- Decreased neuroplasticity makes your thinking and behavior more rigid.
Psychedelics may increase neuroplasticity
- A growing body of research suggests that psychedelics may increase neuroplasticity.
- Studies in animals and human cells have found that psychedelics cause a sudden, dramatic increase in neuroplasticity that lasts for several days after the drug’s effects have worn off.
- Psychedelics seem to enhance the effectiveness of therapy and help people make long-lasting mental and behavioral changes.
- Researchers theorize that neuroplasticity may be the reason—psychedelics may make your brain more plastic, creating a window in which you can more easily make lasting changes to your thoughts and behavior.
- Studies show that psychedelic-assisted therapy is especially promising for people with depression, anxiety, addiction, and PTSD.
- However, research on psychedelics and neuroplasticity is still young, and because of legal constraints, most studies have been in either animals or cells, not people.
Non-drug alternatives to enhance neuroplasticity
- You can enhance your neuroplasticity without psychedelics.
- Dr. Marian Diamond, one of the world’s leading neuroplasticity researchers, recommends five things to enhance neuroplasticity:
- Newness. Learning new skills, languages, or ideas.
- Challenge. Doing difficult things that push your mental and physical limits.
- Exercise. Working out consistently, especially aerobic exercise like running or swimming.
- Diet. Healthy body weight and periods of caloric restriction stimulate neuroplasticity.
- Love. Satisfying interpersonal relationships with family, loved ones, and close friends.
Psychedelics and Neuroplasticity: Final Thoughts
Psychedelics show a great deal of promise for improving mental health, especially when you pair them with psychotherapy. They seem to cause major, positive changes in people’s lives in only a few sessions, and the change seems to last long-term.
A leading theory is that psychedelics make therapy more effective because they increase neuroplasticity, priming your brain to change old mental patterns that influence your thoughts and behavior.
However, research on psychedelics and neuroplasticity is still young, and the majority of it is in either animal models or cell cultures. For now, most of the above is still a theory—although, regardless of the mechanism, it’s increasingly clear that psychedelics can help treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction. Hopefully, as more research comes out, we’ll better understand why.
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