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The Link Between Depression, Psilocybin, and Dementia Prevention
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The Link Between Depression, Psilocybin, and Dementia Prevention

Seraiah Alexander
Seraiah Alexander
April 29, 2024
3 min

As dementia cases continue to climb, researchers are still scrambling for an effective treatment that could halt, if not reverse, its advance. Traditional treatments have primarily focused on managing symptoms rather than prevention. However, a new wave of research is crossing these boundaries. Psilocybin has demonstrated significant potential in alleviating several mental health conditions, such as major depressive disorder, but new data indicates that the substance could also impact the biological processes underlying neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. With its promising effects on protecting the brain from cognitive deterioration, psilocybin could revolutionize our current approaches to preventing and managing dementia.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 55 million people globally are currently diagnosed with dementia, and approximately 280 million people have major depression, with adults over 60 having the highest rates. Researchers have established that there is a complex relationship between the two conditions, as those with major depressive disorder have a 1.5 times higher likelihood of a dementia diagnosis (1). Depression that occurs later in life is particularly noted as a possible prodromal stage of dementia, suggesting that the mechanisms responsible for depression may initiate or exacerbate the neurodegenerative process. Key factors that could link major depression and dementia include chronic inflammation and brain-derived neurotropic factors, both of which are affected by depression and believed to contribute to the onset of dementia.

Psilocybin’s mechanisms of action

One of the most promising aspects of psilocybin is its ability to enhance neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. This feature could be crucial in combatting neurodegenerative diseases, where deterioration in cognitive functions is a defining characteristic. Psilocybin facilitates these changes by interacting with serotonin receptors, particularly the 5-HT2A receptor, which is needed for regulating mood and cognitive processes. When these receptors are activated, they trigger biological processes that promote the growth and survival of neurons and enhance synaptic plasticity. 

Psilocybin has also been found to have significant anti-inflammatory effects. Although chronic inflammation is a major contributor to the formation of neurodegenerative diseases, psilocybins’ potential to reduce brain inflammation could protect against neuronal damage over time and help shield regions of the brain that are vulnerable to degenerative processes. As a result, the progression of these diseases can be significantly slowed by mitigating the inflammatory responses that exacerbate neuronal loss.

Key biological functions in dementia dynamics

Adult hippocampal neurogenesis (AHN) is the process where new neurons are formed in the brain throughout life. This process is crucial for learning, memory formation, and emotional regulation. AHN is particularly vulnerable in neurodegenerative diseases like dementia since a reduction in new neuron formation can significantly contribute to cognitive decline. Research indicates that psilocybin has the capacity to stimulate AHN. By enhancing neurogenesis in the brain, psilocybin could go beyond memory and learning enhancement by offering resilience against the degenerative impacts of dementia. 

Furthermore, microglia, the brain’s immune cells, play a significant role in managing AHN. If these cells do not function properly, it could disrupt neural formation, which is linked to both depression and dementia. Research has found that psilocybin could potentially shift these cells from a pro-inflammatory state to a protective one. As a result, psilocybin could help reduce the inflammatory responses that are central to the progression of dementia, therefore preventing the pathological brain changes associated with the disease (2).

Clinical applications and future research

Treating major depression as a controllable risk factor might help delay dementia, but the timing of intervention is essential. Research highlights the importance of early treatment to mitigate some pathways that lead to cognitive impairments, yet targeted treatment strategies will need to be determined to optimize psilocybin’s neuroprotective effects. Future research should focus on pinpointing the most effective methods for psilocybin therapies, and clinical trials will be needed to verify the safety and efficacy of the substance for treating cognitive decline. 

As we continue to deepen our understanding of how psilocybin affects the brain, we are moving closer to developing a groundbreaking solution, offering hope to the millions affected by neurodegenerative diseases.

References

  1. Brzezińska, Agnieszka, Julius Bourke, Rayito Rivera-Hernández, Magda Tsolaki, Joanna Woźniak, and Jakub Kaźmierski. 2020. “Depression in Dementia or Dementia in Depression? Systematic Review of Studies and Hypotheses.” Current Alzheimer Research 17 (1): 16–28. https://www.eurekaselect.com/article/104552.
  2. Haniff, Zarah R, Mariia Bocharova, Tim Mantingh, James J Rucker, Latha Velayudhan, David M Taylor, Allan H Young, Dag Aarsland, Anthony C Vernon, and Sandrine Thuret. 2024. “Psilocybin for Dementia Prevention? The Potential Role of Psilocybin to Alter Mechanisms Associated with Major Depression and Neurodegenerative Diseases.” Pharmacology & Therapeutics 258 (June): 108641–41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pharmthera.2024.108641.

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science
Seraiah Alexander

Seraiah Alexander

Content Editor

Table Of Contents

1
The link between major depression and dementia
2
Psilocybin’s mechanisms of action
3
Key biological functions in dementia dynamics
4
Clinical applications and future research
5
References

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