"Mini-brains" grown in the lab have proven to be useful models of the real thing, giving researchers an accurate neuroscience platform without testing on animals. Now, a team of scientists from Brazil have doped the mini-brains with a form of the psychedelic drug DMT, to study the effects on neural pathways.
Sometimes called the "spirit molecule", DMT has been used in North and South American indigenous cultures for mystic and religious experiences, often invoking intense hallucinations. But due to tight restrictions on the drug in many countries and a lack of biological tools to test its effects, it's hard to tell just what is happening in the brain.
Enter mini-brains. Grown in the lab, these tiny bundles of neural cells can't think, but they can send electrical signals throughout a natural, three-dimensional structure. That allows scientists to study how the cells develop naturally, as well as what effects injuries or drugs might have, without the need for animal testing.
The Brazilian team dosed a batch of these mini-brains (also known as cerebral organoids) with a compound called 5-MeO-DMT, then used mass spectrometry to analyze how the molecule affected the expression of different proteins in the cerebral models.
The team found that the drug upregulated certain proteins and downregulated others, affecting almost 1,000 proteins in all. Those that received a boost were related to forming and maintaining synapses, particularly proteins that controlled learning and memory. Downregulated proteins, meanwhile, included those that can trigger inflammation, degeneration and lesions in brain tissue, which suggests that DMT may be a strong foundation for developing an antidepressant.
"Results suggest that classic psychedelics are powerful inducers of neuroplasticity, a tool of psychobiological transformation that we know very little about," says Sidarta Ribeiro, co-author of the study.
The results may sound therapeutical, but DMT is not the kind of thing that should be self-prescribed. Instead, the researchers say their findings highlight that further study is needed to determine just how its benefits could be developed into a potential treatment for mental illnesses and other brain disorders.
"For the first time we could describe psychedelic related changes in the molecular functioning of human neural tissue," says Stevens Rehen, lead researcher on the study. "Our study reinforces the hidden clinical potential of substances that are under legal restrictions, but which deserve attention of medical and scientific communities."
The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.