Drugs are bad… till they’re therapeutic. This summer, a group of scientists at Yale finally showed that taking psychedelic mushrooms can lead to neural enhancement. What kind of neural enhancement you ask? Spine growth. (free preprint)
Wait.. like a spinal cord?
Not that one. We are born with billions of itty-bitty protrusions on our neurons that help them communicate with each other. They’re called dendritic spines (confusing, we know). The Yale scientists theorized that mushrooms might enhance spine count in the brain, which could in turn affect behavior. Here’s how they tested this theory:
The experiment: First, a group of mice were exposed to a mild electrical zap. Some of the mice consistently attempted to avoid the zap – these mice were labeled as “resilient”. Other mice eventually gave up trying to avoid the zap and just kind of accepted their fate (major teen angst vibes). The researchers then gave the gloomy mice some psilocybin, which is the active component in magic mushrooms. The goal was to see if this would help them behave more like their resilient peers.
So what happened to the mice on their trip?
The mice who were given psilocybin did become more resilient and evaded more zaps. The researchers also used a tiny glass window in the skull to see that the density of dendritic spines increased in the brains of these mice, with a larger effect in females than males (girl power!). The spines showed up in more than one brain area, stuck around for over a month, and were actively used. The researchers concluded that the mice were able to approach the zaps differently while on psilocybin because of the new connections available in their brains.
The Leak: Research on psychedelics has been a controversial on and off saga. This group of scientists showed for the first time that taking mushrooms leads to the formation of new connections in the brain. Docs are excited because this means psilocybin might be useful for helping patients who just can’t quite get out of a dark rut.
Now that we have your attention, let’s talk about your gut microbiome (y’know, all the little microorganisms that call your large intestine their home). In the past few decades, scientists have found that your gut microbiome can deteriorate noticeably as you age. At the same time, cognitive abilities also worsen with age. These parallels got a group of researchers theorizing - what if the cognitive decline usually attributed to aging is partially related to your gut microbiome?
How would you test that theory?
Strap in, it’s time to talk about poop (for real this time).
The experiment: The researchers used a technique called fecal microbiota transplantation a.k.a. FMT. FMT involves taking a donor animal’s poop and transplanting it into the intestine of a second, recipient animal. This effectively transfers the donor’s gut microbiome to the recipient. It may sound weird, but FMT is commonly used to treat gastrointestinal distress. In this experiment, the researchers used it to transfer the gut microbiome of young mice to elderly mice. They then did some neurological and behavioral tests on the elderly mice to see if it made a difference.
What did they find?
Elderly mice with the young microbiome had an altered immune response in the hippocampus, a brain area commonly associated with memory. Perhaps more notably, these elderly mice showed an improvement in their learning ability and a reduction in anxiety-like behavior when put through cognitive tests. The fact that FMT could lead to cognitive benefits is significant. It means that what we eat & drink could affect how we think through our gut.
The Leak: It seems increasingly likely that your gut microbiome affects your health in ways we previously never thought possible. From your metabolism to immunity or even cognitive ability, the bacteria in your gut appear to exert at least some influence. We don’t fully understand how or why these microorganisms do what they do, but worry not - scientists are hot on the trail.
Wait a second. Are scientific papers not free to read?
Most certainly not. For the uninitiated, here’s the tea on academic publishing. Taxpayer money funds organizations like UKRI, which award grants to scientists. Scientists compete for these grants and use them to pay for experiments. They write up their results to publish, but then must use more grant money to pay publishers to publish them. That’s right. In every other field, publishers pay the authors. In science, researchers pay the publishers (and the hefty bar tabs to help withstand repeated rejections from grant reviewers and journals... 💸💸💸)
Oh and that’s not all. Once published, the average person must then pay a subscription fee to read a scientific paper in a journal. Basically, taxpayers end up repeatedly footing the bill before they can access anything. Feel free to sharpen your pitchforks.
What's being done about this?
Plenty of angry scientists have been advocating for open-access publishing - a system in which all research is made free to read. This is also what the new UKRI policy would mandate for everything they fund. Many have cheered this move, seeing it as a necessary step towards equity in research. Others have expressed concern that the policy could negatively impact scientists by restricting their ability to publish in prestigious journals that don’t follow open-access rules. Publishers are worried that open-access papers could jeopardize their $100 million profit margin (cue world's tiniest violin 🎻).
The Leak: The UK is making big moves towards making science more accessible. While most agree with the spirit behind the policy, some are worried that scientists might once again end up paying the price. Either way, you’ve still got your friendly neighborhood newsletter (us, in case that wasn’t obvious) bringing you the inside scoop.
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