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Scientists Dose "Mini-Brains" with a Psychedelic Drug to Understand How It Works
It’s the 1st observed psychedelic-caused molecular changes inside human neural tissue.
In the Americas, shamans in pre-Columbian societies used psychedelic substances to help cultivate wisdom, gain insights, and commune with the divine. According to new research, such substances may help in more clinical ways. They could be used to treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other psychiatric disorders.
Yet, little is actually known about them from a scientific standpoint. The CIA conducted experiments in the mid-20th century to find out if psychedelics could make hypnosis easier, or help a soldier better withstand “privation, torture, and coercion.”
Ken Kesey, author of the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was one such test subject. The influence of the experience helped him and others birth the counterculture movement of the 1960s, which ultimately stood against the very system that had tested them in the first place.
There was a short window in the late '50s and early '60s where psychedelics were used in the psychiatric community to help patients overcome certain disorders. Iconic Hollywood actor Cary Grant is known to have undergone 100 such therapy sessions.
Since the '60s, psychedelic drugs have become taboo and highly illegal. It’s feared they cause psychosis, despite little actual data suggesting so. In recent years, a small but growing number of studies have returned to the pre-counterculture outlook—that they might help treat certain disorders. LSD, ayahuasca brew (containing DMT), and MDMA have all been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory and antidepressant properties.
Did ancient shamans of North and South America know something that science is only catching onto? DMT, sometimes called the “spirit molecule,” has been a part of shamanic traditions for hundreds of years. The chemical used in this study is a variant of DMT.
The CIA tested psychedelics on unsuspecting subjects to try and gain an edge during the Cold War. Credit: Getty Images.
So what’s the breakthrough? Brazilian researchers have identified the signaling pathways that DMT takes in order to engage neuroplasticity (or changes inside the brain). The results of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Overall, scientists try to uphold things like research ethics. Plus, it's illegal to smoke DMT inside an fMRI machine. Or anywhere. So instead, investigators observed the effects the psychedelic had on so-called “mini-brains.” These cerebral organoids are made up of 3D cultures of neural cells. They’re grown from stem cells. Each mimics a brain inside a human fetus.
These neural organoids were first developed last year at Johns Hopkins University. Since they’re lab grown, there aren’t any thorny ethical issues to deal with. After dosing the mini-brains with DMT, scientists identified the neural pathways the chemical traveled which were later found to be associated with neurodegeneration and inflammation.
Many Westerners today are seeking out shamans to produce ayahuasca tea for their own psychological benefit. Science may back this up. But there could still be dangers. Credit: Apollo. Flickr.
Researchers at the D'Or Institute for Research and Education conducted the study. They were led by Stevens Rehen, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Prof. Rehen said, "For the first time we could describe psychedelic-related changes in the molecular functioning of human neural tissue.”
He added, "Our study reinforces the hidden clinical potential of substances that are under legal restrictions, but which deserve attention of medical and scientific communities." Identifying these pathways has been a priority in the study of psychedelics. A lack of understanding exactly how these substances affect the brain has stunted the field, thus far.
Each mini-brain was given a single dose of the psychedelic 5-MeO-DMT. This compound comes from the dimethyltryptamine family. One might ingest it after licking a certain kind of toad, Incilius alvarius.
Colorado River toad toad (Incilius alvarius). Credit: H. Krisp [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Researchers used a technique known as mass spectrometry-based proteomics to analyze the mini-brains, once dosed. Nearly a thousand proteins were altered by the chemical, they found. Some were upregulated while others were downregulated. Then the scientists took these proteins and traced them back to what role they play inside the brain.
Prof. Rehen and colleagues found that this psychedelic may ward off brain lesions and inflammation, and inhibit neurodegeneration. This suggests it would be helpful as an antidepressant. Sidarta Ribeiro was a co-author on the study. He’s the director of the Brain Institute at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN). Ribeiro said, "Results suggest that classic psychedelics are powerful inducers of neuroplasticity, a tool of psychobiological transformation that we know very little about."
We still don’t know enough about these substances, however. So no one should take them on their own, as they may have other downsides we just aren’t privy to yet, and affect each person differently. More research is required before we can fully understand how these substances change the brain.
Given the high rate of depression these days, new treatment options are sorely needed. Perhaps someday a psychedelic, a derivative of one, or a synthetic based on one, will help patients overcome certain psychiatric disorders.
To learn more about science's rejuvenated interest of psychedelics, click here:
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
The distances between the stars are so vast that they can make your brain melt. Take for example the Voyager 1 probe, which has been traveling at 35,000 miles per hour for more than 40 years and was the first human object to cross into interstellar space. That sounds wonderful except, at its current speed, it will still take another 40,000 years to cross the typical distance between stars.
Worse still, if you are thinking about interstellar travel, nature provides a hard limit on acceleration and speed. As Einstein showed, it's impossible to accelerate any massive object beyond the speed of light. Since the galaxy is more than 100,000 light-years across, if you are traveling at less than light speed, then most interstellar distances would take more than a human lifetime to cross. If the known laws of physics hold, then it seems a galaxy-spanning human civilization is impossible.
Unless of course you can build a warp drive.
Ah, the warp drive, that darling of science fiction plot devices. So, what about a warp drive? Is that even a really a thing?
Let's start with the "warping" part of a warp drive. Without doubt, Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity ("GR") represents space and time as a 4-dimensional "fabric" that can be stretched and bent and folded. Gravity waves, representing ripples in the fabric of spacetime, have now been directly observed. So, yes spacetime can be warped. The warping part of a warp drive usually means distorting the shape of spacetime so that two distant locations can be brought close together — and you somehow "jump" between them.
This was a basic idea in science fiction long before Star Trek popularized the name "warp drive." But until 1994, it had remained science fiction, meaning there was no science behind it. That year, Miguel Alcubierre wrote down a solution to the basic equations of GR that represented a region that compressed spacetime ahead of it and expanded spacetime behind to create a kind of traveling warp bubble. This was really good news for warp drive fans.
The problems with a warp drive
There were some problems though. Most important was that this "Alcubierre drive" required lots of "exotic matter" or "negative energy" to work. Unfortunately, there's no such thing. These are things theorists dreamed up to stick into the GR equations in order to do cool things like make stable open wormholes or functioning warp drives.
It's also noteworthy that researchers have raised other concerns about an Alcubierre drive — like how it would violate quantum mechanics or how when you arrived at your destination it would destroy everything in front of the ship in an apocalyptic flash of radiation.
Warp drives: A new hope
Credit: Primada / 420366373 via Adobe Stock
Recently, however, there seemed to be good news on the warp drive front with the publication this April of a new paper by Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martre entitled "Introducing Physical Warp Drives." The good thing about the Bobrick and Martre paper was it was extremely clear about the meaning of a warp drive.
Understanding the equations of GR means understanding what's on either side of the equals sign. On one side, there is the shape of spacetime, and on the other, there is the configuration of matter-energy. The traditional route with these equations is to start with a configuration of matter-energy and see what shape of spacetime it produces. But you can also go the other way around and assume the shape of spacetime you want (like a warp bubble) and determine what kind of configuration of matter-energy you will need (even if that matter-energy is the dream stuff of negative energy).
Warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested.
What Bobrick and Martre did was step back and look at the problem more generally. They showed how all warp drives were composed of three regions: an interior spacetime called the passenger space; a shell of material, with either positive or negative energy, called the warping region; and an outside that, far enough away, looks like normal unwarped spacetime. In this way they could see exactly what was and was not possible for any kind of warp drive. (Watch this lovely explainer by Sabine Hossenfelder for more details). They even showed that you could use good old normal matter to create a warp drive that, while it moved slower than light speed, produced a passenger area where time flowed at a different rate than in the outside spacetime. So even though it was a sub-light speed device, it was still an actual warp drive that could use normal matter.
That was the good news.
The bad news was this clear vision also showed them a real problem with the "drive" part of the Alcubierre drive. First of all, it still needed negative energy to work, so that bummer remains. But worse, Bobrick and Martre reaffirmed a basic understanding of relativity and saw that there was no way to accelerate an Alcubierre drive past light speed. Sure, you could just assume that you started with something moving faster than light, and the Alcubierre drive with its negative energy shell would make sense. But crossing the speed of light barrier was still prohibited.
So, in the end, the Star Trek version of the warp drive is still not a thing. I know this may bum you out if you were hoping to build that version of the Enterprise sometime soon (as I was). But don't be too despondent. The Bobrick and Martre paper really did make headway. As the authors put it in the end:
"One of the main conclusions of our study is that warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested"
That really is progress.
The Black Death wasn't the only plague in the 1300s.
- In a unique study, researchers have determined how many people in medieval England had bunions
- A fashion trend towards pointed toe shoes made the affliction common.
- Even monks got in on the trend, much to their discomfort later in life.
Late Medieval England had its share of problems. The Wars of Roses raged, the Black Death killed off large parts of the population, and passing ruffians could say "Ni" at will to old ladies.
To make matters worse, a first of its kind study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology has demonstrated that much of the population suffered from another plague — a plague of bunions likely caused by a ridiculous medieval fashion trend.
If the shoe fits, it won't cause bunions
The outlines of a leather shoe from the King's Ditch, Cambridge. It is easy to see how these shoes might be constricting. Copyright Cambridge Archaeological Unit.
The bunion, known to medicine as "hallux valgus," is a deformity of the joint connecting the big toe to the rest of the foot. It is painful and can cause other issues including poor balance. The condition is associated with having worn constrictive shoes for a long period of time as well as genetic factors. Today, it is often caused by wearing high heeled shoes.
The medieval English didn't care for high heeled shoes as much as modern fashionistas, but there was a major fashion trend toward shoes with long, pointed toes called "poulaines" or "crakows" for their supposed place of origin, Krakow, Poland.
This trend, already silly-looking to a modern observer, got out of hand in a hurry. According to some records, the points on nobleman's shoes could be so long as to require tying them to the leg with string so the wearer could walk. At one point, King Edward IV had to ban commoners from wearing points longer than two inches. A couple years later, he saw fit to ban the shoes altogether.
But, just knowing that people back in the day made poor fashion choices doesn't prove they suffered for it. That is where digging up old skeletons to look at their feet comes in.
Beauty is pain: the price of high medieval fashion
To learn how bad the bunion epidemic was, the researchers looked to four burial sites in and around Cambridge. One was a rural cemetery where poor peasants were buried. Another was the All Saints by the Castle parish, which had a mixed collection of people that tended toward poverty. The Hospital of St. John's burial ground contained both the poor charges of a charity hospital and wealthy benefactors. Lastly, they considered the cemetery of a local Augustinian friary, home to monks and well-to-do philanthropists.
The team considered 177 adult skeletons that were at least a quarter complete and still had enough of their feet to make studying them possible. The remains were classified by age and sex by observation and DNA testing. Each was examined for evidence of bunions and signs of complications from the condition, such as falling.
Those buried in the monastery's graveyard were the most affected. Nearly half, 43 percent, of the remains found there had bunions. This includes five of the eleven members of the clergy they found. Twenty-three percent of those laid to rest at the Hospital of St. John had bunions, though only 10 percent of those at the All Saints by the Castle parish graveyard did.
The rural cemetery had a much lower rate of instances, only three percent, suggesting that these peasants were able to avoid at least one plague.
Overall, eighteen percent of the individuals examined had bunions, with men more likely to have them than women. Those at cemeteries known for exclusivity were more likely to have them as well, though it is clear that the condition also affected members of other classes. This makes sense, as it is known that these shoes had mass appeal.
The authors note that the rural cemetery having fewer cases is partly because that cemetery "went out of use prior to the wide adoption of pointed shoes, and it is likely that those residing in the parish predominately wore soft leather shoes, or possibly went barefoot."
Those skeletons with evidence of bunions were more likely to have fractures indicative of a fall. This was more common on those estimated or recorded as having lived past age 45.
In our much more enlightened times, 23 percent of the population currently endures having bunions, most of them women, and one of the leading culprits behind this is the high heeled shoe.
Some things never change.