Researchers at Duke University Exploring How Psychedelics Function in the Brain

Researchers at Duke University are exploring how psychedelics function in the brain by dosing larval zebrafish with a compound similar to LSD, and investigating how the substance affects movement and perception.

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Researchers at Duke University are exploring how psychedelics function in the brain by dosing larval zebrafish with DOI, a compound similar to LSD. Minel Arinel, a graduate student in the Department of Neurobiology, said that while “Clinical trials just ask whether people with psychiatric disorders get better, there’s not much of a mechanistic understanding of what exactly is happening” when someone is under the influence of psychedelics. 

Arinel’s current project seeks to understand how brain cells, and which ones, change to impact a fish’s movement and perception after being dosed with DOI. 

“It really changes their sensitivity to the dark. At lower concentrations of DOI, they move way more in the dark, but as the concentration increases, they start moving less and less. They kind of just float around in the water and lose motor control.” — Arinel to Duke School of Medicine Magnify 

Arinel added that the research won’t immediately lead to cures for neurological disorders any time soon.   

“We cannot say, ‘We gave this drug to a fish, so we’re going to cure PTSD,’ or anything like that,” she said.  

Another study by Duke researchers is investigating how the substances might alleviate opioid addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Graduate student Kathryn Walder-Christensen said that several of her family members suffer from OCD and they have “gone through batteries of treatment and medications and behavioral therapy, and nothing has worked.” 

“The idea of finding something that would provide a long-lasting therapeutic benefit is very appealing,” she said.

Walder-Christensen is working in the Collective for Psychiatric Neuroengineering on they study, which doses mice with tweaked versions of psychedelic drugs that have the hallucinogenic component removed.

Cynthia Kuhn, PhD, professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology, said there’s a debate, that cannot be answered by animal studies, about whether the hallucinogenic aspect induced by psychedelics is a pivotal part of therapeutic healing, or if it is a byproduct of chemical reactions.

“Do you need that psychedelic experience to achieve therapeutic effects? Or are you just putting a key in a biochemical lock, and it doesn’t matter if you’re conscious or not?” Kuhn said. “What you can learn in a rodent, or a zebrafish is exactly what molecule or receptor mechanism is being activated. What you never know is what they’re thinking.”

The studies have yet to be published but Duke has been looking at psychedelic studies since 2020 when Kuhn created a course on psychedelics as medicine and in 2021 the Duke Margolis Center for Health Policy assembled a panel of experts to examine the hurdles in the design and execution of psychedelic-focused clinical trials.

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