HBHL funds largest study of its kind on psychedelics and the brain

Published: 25 March 2022

A team of researchers from The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) and the Department of Biomedical Engineering of McGill University, the Broad Institute at Harvard/MIT, SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University and Mila – Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute have shown how drug-induced changes in subjective awareness are linked to specific neurotransmitter receptor systems in the largest study of its kind on psychedelics and the brain, funded by HBHL. 

The team used a first-of-its-kind machine learning strategy to analyze 6,850 testimonials from people who took a range of 27 different psychedelic drugs. This method pulled commonly used words from the testimonials and associated them with the neurotransmitter receptors that were most likely to be responsible for causing those sensations. For example, a common effect of some psychedelics is ego-dissolution, or the feeling of being detached from the self. The study found that this feeling was most associated with a specific neurotransmitter receptor, serotonin 5-HT2A.

The large dataset of testimonials allowed the team to characterize coherent states of conscious experiences with receptors and brain regions across individuals, regardless of how psychedelic experience varied from person to person. This breakthrough could support the design of new hallucinogenic drug compounds to reliably create desired mental states. 

“Hallucinogenic drugs may very well turn out to be the next big thing to improve clinical care of major mental health conditions,” says the study’s lead author, McGill professor Danilo Bzdok. “Our study provides a first step, a proof of principle that we may be able to build machine learning systems in the future that can accurately predict which neurotransmitter receptor combinations need to be stimulated to induce a specific state of conscious experience in a given person.”

Read the full press release.

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