One of five U.S. adults will experience a mental illness in their life, according to the National Alliance of Mental Health. However, standard treatments can be slow to take effect and may cause adverse negative effects.
Virginia Tech researcher joined a revival of research into a banned drug class that could be used to treat various kinds of mental illness. In mice the drugs have demonstrated lasting effects.
Using a process his lab devised in 2015, Chang Lu, the Fred W. Bull Professor of Chemical Engineering in the College of Engineering, is aiding his Virginia Commonwealth University collaborators study the epigenomic effects of psychedelics.
These findings provide insight into how psychedelics like mescaline and LSD can help treat symptoms such as depression, anxiety, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. The drugs seem to be more effective and last longer than other treatments – and all with fewer side negative effects.
Lu’s genomic analysis was the crucial element in the success of this project. His method allows researchers to take very small samples of tissue and draw significant conclusions. More advanced processes require larger sample sizes. Lu’s method permits studies that only require just a small amount of tissue from a particular area of the brain of a mouse.
It is crucial to study the effects of psychedelics on brain tissue.
Researchers can do human clinical trials with the substances, taking urine and blood samples, and observing behavior, Lu said. “But the problem is that the behavioral data will show you the results however it doesn’t explain the reason why it behaves in a particular way,” he said.
Scientists can examine the molecular changes that occur in animal models like the brains and the brains of mice to gain insights into the “black box” of neuroscience. This allows them to see the biological processes at play. Although the brains of mice are very different from human brains, Lu said there are enough similarities to allow an accurate comparison between the two.
Javier Gonzalez-Maeso who is a VCU pharmacist has made a career from studying the psychedelics. These substances were banned in the 1960s after recreational use was popularized. In recent years, regulators have allowed research on the drugs to continue.
Gonzalez-Maeso, who worked with other researchers mostly on the psilocybin (a substance found in over 200 species of fungi) and psychedelics, said that they have been proven effective in helping to reduce anxiety and major depression.
They induce profound effects in perception,” he said. “But I was curious about how these drugs actually cause behavioral effects in mice.”
Javier Gonzalez-Maeso, VCU pharmacologist
Lu was his co-worker in the study of the genetic causes of these effects.
In the joint Virginia Tech – VCU study, Gonzalez-Maeso’s team used 2,5-dimethoxy-4-iodoamphetamine, or DOI, a drug similar to LSD, administering it to mice that had been trained to fear certain triggers. Lu’s lab then analyzed brain samples for changes in the epigenome, or gene expression. They discovered that epigenomic changes were more persistent than those in gene expression, and therefore more likely to be linked to the long-term effects of psychedelics.
After a single dose of DOI, the mice who were reacted to fear triggers were no longer able to respond with anxious behavior. Lu said that the substance had also been detected in their brains, however, it was not found in the tissues. The findings were published in the October issue Cell Reports.
It’s a hopeful development for people suffering from mental illness, as well as those who care for them. Lu was drawn to the project for more reasons than just the science.
For him, it’s personal.
“My older brother has had schizophrenia for the last 30 years, basically. So I’ve always been interested by the subject of mental health,” Lu said. “Then I realized that our approach could be applied to processes like those – which is why my research into brain neuroscience was started.”
Gonzalez-Maeso noted that research into psychedelics is in its infancy, and there’s still a lot to be done before treatments derived from them will be widely available.
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