Neurogenesis and Neuroplasticity: Can Psychedelics help grow your brain cells and unlock new neural connections?

February 17, 2021
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“Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.” — Santiago Ramón Y Cajal, Nobel-prize winning Spanish neuroscientist.
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How does neurogenesis and neuroplasticity work? And how is this related to our well-being?

Neurogenesis: the ability to create new neurons (brain cells) and connections between neurons.

Neuroplasticity: the capacity of the brain to change and rewire itself in response to the stimulation of learning and experience.

Our cognition (the way we think) is linked to the location and strength of the connections between neurons, which communicate by transmitting an electrical or chemical signal. Typically throughout your life, your neurons are mostly fixed, and won’t be replaced once they die. They also usually do not make major changes in the ways they connect with each other. But as you will see in the rest of this article, we are starting to discover more about the brain’s flexibility and how we can promote structural and functional changes within.

Both neurogenesis and neuroplasticity are believed to play a role in learning, memory and depression, and have been associated with a number of psychological benefits. It is believed that the more our brains are capable of changing their structure in specific regions of the brain associated with learning and memory, the greater our ability to change behaviours. This can suggest that increasing these functions could help break us out of old habits and thought patterns while forming new, healthier ones.

Studies have shown that there is often atrophy of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) (involved in decision-making and personality) and the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory) amongst people with depression, PTSD, and related disorders, and is exacerbated by stress. Patients tend to have impaired neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, meaning that they have fewer overall neurons that grow more slowly, and fewer connections that are less adaptable.

But, luckily for us, with some assistance, our wondrous brains are capable of regenerating and re-wiring themselves.

Structural changes such as “loss of dendritic spines and elimination of synapses can potentially be counteracted by compounds capable of promoting neural plasticity in the PFC.” (Research here) Therefore, It hypothesized that the ability to promote neurogenesis and plasticity in this region of the brain has antidepressant properties. The most common antidepressants increase neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and we know that Ketamine, a synthetic psychedelic, has been recently shown to do the same. Recent studies have now shown that psychedelic plant medicines such as Ayahuasca and Psilocybin have a comparable, or even greater effect on the brain.

Summary: Neurogenesis and Neuroplasticity have been linked with 3 major areas of cognition:

Improved learning: Communication and reconciliation between parts of the brain that normally do not exchange information could result in breaking out of old habits, and forming new healthier patterns of behavior. As our brains loosen from deterministic thinking patterns, flexibility, creativity, and new ways of thinking can emerge.

Forming strong memories: The hippocampus is understood to be an important part of memory in the brain, and new neurons may modulate the hippocampal network to form and store new memories. Strengthening new neural pathways and clearing old memories from old pathways may also optimize the capacity for memory processes.

Reversing depression: those who suffer from depression, anxiety, and PTSD tend to have impaired neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Their brain cells grow more slowly and are less adaptable, which could explain repetitive negative thought loops and excessive rumination. Increased neurogenesis and neuroplasticity may allow for healing at the root cause.  

“Healing is not just a desired outcome of treatment, it is a potential that is there from the start. We are wired to heal, to right ourselves, to grow and transform. This is not just a metaphor. It is what neuroplasticity is about.”

― Hilary Jacobs Hendel, Psychotherapist and author of “It's Not Always Depression”

Science shows that there are a few things you can do to boost your neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.

  • Exercise

  • Diet (high-sugar and high-fat diets impair this ability)

  • New Experiences

  • Meditation

  • Psychedelics

Interestingly, the brain of an experienced meditator is often compared to the brain of someone on Psychedelics.

“Meditation has also been proven scientifically to untangle and rewire the neurological pathways in the brain that make up the conditioned personality. Buddhist monks, for example, have had their brains scanned by scientists as they sat still in deep altered states of consciousness invoked by transcendental meditation and the scientists were amazed at what they beheld. The frontal lobes of the monks lit up as bright as the sun! They were in states of peace and happiness the scientists had never seen before. Meditation invokes that which is known in neuroscience as neuroplasticity; which is the loosening of the old nerve cells or hardwiring in the brain, to make space for the new to emerge. Meditation, in this sense, is a fire that burns away the old or conditioned self”

― Craig Krishna, “The Labyrinth: Rewiring the Nodes in the Maze of your Mind

How do Psychedelics boost neurogenesis and neuroplasticity?

Our brains are overwhelmed by the complexity of life and as a result, they take mental “short-cuts” in our thinking. The side effect: deterministic, overly patterned thinking. We massively overuse a small subset of our neural pathways at the expense of the greater whole. This is a primary factor contributing to the explanation of the transformational results from plant medicine retreats, which have been shown to promote both neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.

“Your brain loves habits because they are simple, structured, well-known, energy efficient, quick, and automatic.”

― Stan Jacobs

Although in early stages in research, studies have shown that synthetic LSD and DMT (the compound naturally occurring in Ayahuasca) help grow already matured neurons in the brain, increasing dendritic complexity, dendritic spine growth, and synapse formation. In one study from Johns Hopkins University in 2013, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) was shown to increase the number of new cells growing in the hippocampus of mice. In another study, neural stem cells taken from the brains of adult mice were grown into neurons in a lab and were tracked at how quickly they grew. When the cells were grown with harmine, tetrahydroharmine (THH), and harmaline (three of the major components of ayahuasca), the stem cells grew bigger and resembled fully-grown neurons, suggesting that the psychedelic components of ayahuasca could boost neurogenesis.

Effect of psychedelics LSD and DMT on neurogenesis. The number of dendritic spines on cortical neurons – which act as gateways and connections to other neurons – was significantly increased following treatment with psychedelics (Ly et al. 2018)

The implications of such studies could mean that psychedelic compounds may restore areas of the brain that have been damaged by depression, healing and resetting the root cause, and enabling communication and reconciliation between parts of the brain that normally do not exchange information.  The brain becomes more flexible, unique, and creative.  We make associations we normally wouldn’t make and we discover entirely new ways of thinking about the world, others, and ourselves.

At Behold retreats, we take your neurology seriously during your guided psychedelic retreat. A curated team of expert facilitators, therapists, and coaches are available for you to ensure your growth and safety as you harness the power of psychedelics to change your brain, guiding you through this transformational journey.

For more information on how your psilocybin retreat or ayahuasca retreat can help you achieve neurological and psychological benefits watch this video.

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