After half a century of blocks to research on psychedelics’ potential for treating alcohol use disorder, today’s scientists are finally catching up to the pioneering work of their predecessors. In a new study, researchers show that one psychedelic, psilocybin, essentially repairs the part of the brain responsible for alcohol cravings, hinting at a potential new treatment for the disorder.
The study, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, builds off work begun in the late 1950s, when researchers Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer, two early LSD researchers, gave the drug to alcoholics and found that a year later, 40 to 45 percent of alcoholics who received the drug were still sober; a remarkable feat for a condition with high rates of relapse.
In the new study, the researchers hone in on why these drugs work at the neurobiological level, pinpointing a specific glutamate receptor in brain cells affected by alcohol use — when this receptor is damaged, it has a harmful effect on brain function. When treated with psilocybin, however, mice used to mimic alcohol use disorder showed repaired glutamate receptor function. What’s more, the researchers identify a biomarker in the study that may ultimately help doctors determine who might benefit most from psilocybin treatment in humans.
To understand the new study’s findings, we need to zoom in on the neurobiology that is its focus. In the brain, a region called the prefrontal cortex is responsible for cognitive control functions like attention, impulse control, and cognitive flexibility. Previous research demonstrates neurons in the prefrontal cortex are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of chronic, intermittent, alcohol use.
Marcus Meinhardt, a co-author of the new study, says that in the past, his team identified a specific type of glutamate receptor affected by ethanol, basically pure alcohol. This receptor is called metabotropic glutamate receptor subtype 2, or mGluR2 for short.
Glutamate plays an essential role in maintaining brain function, so when glutamate receptors are damaged, the work of the neurotransmitter goes awry. To make matters worse, alcohol suppresses glutamate production, so there is less of the neurotransmitter to go around, too.
Published: November 24, 2021
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