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Psychedelics Unlock Pivotal Learning Windows, Study Finds

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A recent psychedelic study has indicated that hallucinogens such as psilocybin may be able to unlock the critical “learning period” when mammals are more susceptible to their outside environment. This is a period of brain development when mammals can engage with their surroundings in a way that drives brain development and allows them to absorb the lessons they need to survive swiftly. It allows mammals to quickly learn skills that are essential for their survival, such as speech in humans and singing in birds.

Finding ways to reopen this period could make it possible and a lot easier for humans to learn new languages or improve their motor skills after suffering a stroke. Researchers and neuroscientists have spent decades looking for ways to reopen these critical periods, and psychedelics seem to have finally opened a concrete avenue for research. Neuroscientists from Johns Hopkins Medicine found that a single dose of a psychedelic could open this critical period in mice models by around two days to up to four weeks.

Much like cannabis, psychedelics have recently enjoyed plenty of mainstream and scientific attention due to their purported medical benefits. Initial studies have indeed shown that psychedelics can be effective against mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders, offering relatively long-term benefits with little side effects and at minimal doses.

The scientists behind the recent study say their results provide insight into how psychedelics function and could allow for the development of psychedelic treatments for conditions such as stroke and even deafness. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine associate professor of neuroscience Gül Dölen, MD, PhD, explains that the mammalian brain is much more “susceptible and open to learning” during these critical learning windows. Once the window passes, the brain essentially becomes less sensitive to environmental cues and loses its ability to swiftly absorb knowledge.

Dölen’s team discovered that MDMA could open critical periods in mice during a 2019 study and posited that MDMA had this ability due to its prosocial properties. However, the recent study showed that even psychedelics without prosocial properties could reopen critical learning periods, indicating that some other underlying mechanism was at work.

This time, the research team studied the effects of MDMA, LSD, ibogaine, psilocybin and ketamine in mouse models. The researchers found that ketamine reopened the critical period for 48 hours, psilocybin and MDMA for two weeks, LSD for three weeks, and ibogaine for four weeks.

This study shows how potentially far-reaching the formulations being developed by startups such as atai Life Sciences N.V. (NASDAQ: ATAI) could be in helping patients deal with the different psychiatric conditions, which don’t respond to the existing treatments.

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