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Integrative Psychiatry

Psychedelics and Neuroplasticity: A New Frontier in Mental Health Treatment

By September 21, 2023March 7th, 2024No Comments

Mental health is an integral component of overall well-being, and the importance of addressing mental health issues cannot be overstated. Mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction affect millions of people worldwide, significantly impacting their quality of life. The traditional approaches to mental health treatment, including therapy and medication, have been helpful for many individuals. 

In this blog post, we will delve deeper into the concept of neuroplasticity and explore how psychedelics may impact this process. We will examine the potential applications of psychedelics in mental health treatment, review current research and clinical trials, discuss the legal and regulatory environment, and address criticisms and concerns surrounding the use of psychedelics. 

What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s remarkable ability to adapt, reorganize, and change its structure and function throughout an individual’s life. It is the brain’s inherent capacity to modify neural pathways and form new connections in response to experiences, learning, environmental factors, and even physical or psychological trauma.

Traditionally, it was believed that the brain’s development and organization were fixed during early childhood and adolescence, and that the adult brain was relatively stable. However, groundbreaking research has shown that neuroplasticity exists throughout life, allowing the brain to constantly reshape itself in response to internal and external stimuli.

Importance of Neuroplasticity to Mental Health

Neuroplasticity plays a vital role in mental health, as it underlies the brain’s ability to adapt and recover from challenges, stress, and mental health disorders. Here are several key ways in which neuroplasticity is significant:

  1. Learning and Memory: Neuroplasticity is fundamental to the processes of learning and memory formation. It enables the brain to acquire new information, store memories, and retrieve them when needed. When we learn something new, neural connections are formed and strengthened. Conversely, when we don’t use certain neural connections, they may weaken or even disappear. 
  2. Recovery from Injury and Disease: Following traumatic brain injuries, strokes, or neurodegenerative diseases, neuroplasticity allows the brain to rewire and compensate for damaged areas. This adaptive process helps individuals regain lost functions and adapt to new circumstances. 
  3. Resilience and Adaptability: Neuroplasticity enables the brain to respond and adapt to changes in the environment, stressors, and emotional experiences. It allows individuals to develop resilience and cope with challenging situations, promoting mental well-being. 
  4. Shaping of Neural Circuits: In mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and addiction, neuroplasticity can be both beneficial and detrimental. It plays a role in the development and persistence of these disorders but can also be harnessed for therapeutic interventions to reshape maladaptive neural circuits.

Psychedelics: An Overview 


Psychedelics, also known as hallucinogens or entheogens, are a class of psychoactive substances that produce profound alterations in perception, cognition, and emotions. These substances have been used for centuries in various cultures for spiritual, shamanic, and healing purposes. Examples of psychedelics include psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms), LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), DMT (dimethyltryptamine), mescaline (found in peyote cactus), and ayahuasca.

Throughout history, psychedelics have played a significant role in religious and ceremonial practices. Indigenous cultures from the Amazon rainforest to the Native American tribes have utilized these substances as tools for spiritual exploration and gaining insights into the nature of existence. The use of psychedelics has also been associated with artistic and cultural movements, such as the counterculture of the 1960s.

Different Types of Psychedelics and Their Effects on the Brain

Psychedelics exert their effects by interacting with serotonin receptors in the brain, particularly the 5-HT2A receptor. This interaction leads to changes in neural activity, neurotransmitter release, and communication between brain regions. These alterations result in the characteristic effects of psychedelics, including sensory distortions, visual hallucinations, enhanced introspection, altered sense of self, and heightened emotional experiences.

Different psychedelics have varying potencies, durations, and subjective effects. For example, psilocybin mushrooms can induce feelings of euphoria, introspection, and mystical experiences. LSD is known for its long-lasting effects, intense visual hallucinations, and potential for profound spiritual experiences. DMT, often consumed through ayahuasca, can lead to otherworldly visions, ego dissolution, and encounters with mystical entities. Mescaline, derived from the peyote cactus, produces altered perceptions of time, enhanced empathy, and spiritual insights.

Current Legal Status and Regulations Surrounding Psychedelics

The legal status of psychedelics varies across countries and jurisdictions. In many places, psychedelics are classified as Schedule I substances, indicating they are considered to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. However, there is a growing shift in attitudes and policies towards psychedelics, driven by emerging scientific evidence of their therapeutic potential.

In recent years, several countries and regions have started to explore alternative approaches to psychedelics. For example, in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted breakthrough therapy designation to psilocybin-assisted therapy for treatment-resistant depression. Other countries, including Canada and the Netherlands, have allowed the use of psychedelics in clinical research settings or decriminalized possession and use in specific contexts.

What Connects Psychedelics to Neuroplasticity?

Psychedelics have been found to have a profound impact on neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize and form new connections between neurons. Several studies have explored the connection between psychedelics and neuroplasticity, shedding light on the mechanisms through which these substances promote brain adaptability and change.

Evidence suggests that psychedelics such as LSD, DMT, and DOI can increase the complexity of dendritic arbor, stimulate dendritic spine growth, and promote structural and functional neural plasticity (Frontiers in Psychiatry). In particular, LSD has shown to be highly potent in promoting neuritogenesis compared to other tested psychedelics (NCBI). These findings indicate that psychedelics have the potential to enhance the growth and connectivity of neurons in the brain.

How Psychedelics Impact Neuroplasticity

Research studies have shown that psychedelics have the potential to promote neuroplasticity in the brain. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize and form new connections between neurons, allowing for learning, memory formation, and adaptation.

Psychedelics interact with the serotonin system in the brain, particularly the 5-HT2A receptor. This interaction triggers a cascade of effects that lead to changes in neuronal activity and communication. These changes can result in alterations in structural and functional connectivity within the brain, promoting neuroplasticity.

Potential Mechanisms Through Which Psychedelics Promote Neuroplasticity

The exact mechanisms through which psychedelics promote neuroplasticity are still being explored. However, researchers have proposed several potential mechanisms:

  • Modulation of Excitatory Neurotransmission: Psychedelics have been found to modulate the activity of excitatory neurotransmitters, such as glutamate. This modulation may facilitate synaptic plasticity and the formation of new connections between neurons. 
  • Activation of Growth Factors: Psychedelics may stimulate the release of growth factors, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). These growth factors play a crucial role in neuronal survival, growth, and connectivity, contributing to neuroplasticity. 
  • Disruption of Default Mode Network: The default mode network (DMN) is a brain network associated with self-referential thinking and mind-wandering. Psychedelics have been shown to temporarily disrupt the functioning of the DMN, leading to a more fluid and flexible state of consciousness. This disruption may create an opportunity for the brain to reorganize and form new neural connections. 
  • Increased Excitability and Synchronization: Psychedelics can increase neuronal excitability and promote synchronous firing of neurons. This heightened excitability and synchronization may facilitate the strengthening and remodeling of neural connections.

What’s the Issue?

Psychedelics and neuroplasticity have been the subject of scientific research, with studies exploring their effects on the brain’s ability to change and adapt. While psychedelics have shown potential therapeutic benefits, there are also some concerns and issues associated with their impact on neuroplasticity.

According to a systematic review published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, LSD was found to be the most potent psychedelic in promoting neuritogenesis compared to other tested psychedelics. Neuritogenesis refers to the growth and development of nerve cells, indicating that psychedelic substances may have the ability to enhance neuroplasticity in certain contexts (Frontiers in Psychiatry).

Potential Risks and Side Effects Associated with Psychedelics

While psychedelics have shown promise in therapeutic contexts, it is important to acknowledge and address the potential risks and side effects associated with their use. Some common concerns include:

  1. Psychological Distress: Psychedelics can induce intense and unpredictable psychological experiences, which may lead to feelings of anxiety, fear, or confusion. These experiences can be particularly challenging for individuals with a history of mental health disorders or those who are not prepared for the intensity of the psychedelic experience. 
  2. Bad Trips: A “bad trip” refers to a negative and distressing psychedelic experience. Bad trips can occur due to various factors, such as an individual’s mindset, setting, or dosage. They may result in acute psychological distress, panic reactions, or even trauma. 
  3. Risky Behavior: While under the influence of psychedelics, individuals may engage in risky behaviors due to altered perception and judgment. This can potentially lead to accidents, self-harm, or other dangerous situations. 
  4. Pre-existing Mental Health Conditions: Psychedelics can exacerbate symptoms in individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or certain personality disorders. Individuals with these conditions should approach psychedelic use with caution and under professional guidance.

Final Thoughts

The potential of psychedelics and neuroplasticity offers hope for a new era in mental health treatment. Conventional approaches have limitations, and the need for innovative and transformative treatments is increasingly recognized. Psychedelics, through their impact on neuroplasticity, have the potential to provide breakthroughs in the understanding and management of mental health conditions.

In conclusion, the potential of psychedelics and neuroplasticity in mental health treatment is an exciting frontier that requires further research, exploration, and responsible integration. With continued efforts and collaboration, there is hope for a future where these substances can be used as powerful tools in transforming mental health care and helping individuals find healing, resilience, and improved quality of life.

Sara Reed, MS, LMFT

Sara Reed is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and CEO of Mind’s iHealth Solutions, a digital health company that provides evidence based and culturally responsible mental health services for underserved groups. As a mental health futurist and clinical researcher, Sara examines the ways culture informs the way we diagnose and treat mental illness. Sara’s prior research work includes participation as a study therapist in psychedelic therapy research at Yale University and the University of Connecticut’s Health Center. Sara was the first Black therapist to provide MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in a clinical trial and continues to engage in ongoing advocacy work around health equity in psychedelic medicine.

Jeffrey Guss, MD is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and researcher with specializations in psychoanalytic therapy and the treatment of substance use disorders. He was Co-Principal Investigator and Director of Psychedelic Therapy Training for the NYU School of Medicine’s study on psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy in the treatment of cancer-related existential distress, which was published in Journal of Psychopharmacology, 2016. He currently is a study therapist in the NYU study on Psychedelic-Assisted therapy in the treatment of Alcoholism, a collaborator with Yale University’s study on psychedelic-assisted therapy for Major Depressive Disorder and a study therapist with the MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) study on treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy. 

Dr. Guss is interested in the integration of psychedelic therapies with contemporary psychoanalytic theory and has published in Studies in Gender and Sexuality and Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society. He has published (with Elizabeth Nielson, PhD) a paper on “the influence of therapists’ first had experience with psychedelics on psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy research and therapist training” in The Journal of Psychedelic Studies, August, 2018. He is an Instructor and Mentor with the California Institute of Integral Studies’ Center for Psychedelic Therapies and Supervisor in NYU’s Fellowship in Addiction Psychiatry. 

Dr. Guss maintains a private practice in New York City.

Will Van Derveer, MD

Will Van Derveer, MD is Co-Founder of Integrative Psychiatry Institute and Integrative Psychiatry Centers. Dr. Van Derveer was co-investigator on a phase 2 MAPS study of Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for treatment-resistant PTSD, and co-authored the publication of this study in 2018. He has also provided Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy in two MAPS training studies. An active provider of KAP at his clinic in Boulder, CO, he has been teaching others KAP therapy for several years. Dr. Van Derveer contributed a chapter on mescaline in the 2021 "Handbook of Medical Hallucinogens" (edited by Charles Grob and Jim Grigsby). He is co-host of the Higher Practice Podcast.

Dr. Van Derveer regards unresolved emotional trauma as the most significant under-recognized root cause of psychiatric symptoms in integrative psychiatry practice, along with gut issues, hormone imbalances, inflammation, mitochondrial dysfunction, and other functional medicine challenges. He is trained in Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, Internal Family Systems, and other psychotherapy techniques. His current clinical passion is psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, which he mentors interested doctors in providing. An avid meditator, he has been a meditation instructor since 2004.

For the past several years Dr. Van Derveer has taught psychiatrists and other psychiatric providers integrative psychiatry in a number of settings, including course directing the CU psychiatry residents’ course as well as with Scott Shannon and Janet Settle at the Psychiatry MasterClass.

Scott has been a student of consciousness since his honors thesis on that topic at the University of Arizona in the 1970s under the tutelage of Dr. Andrew Weil. Following medical school, Scott studied Jungian therapy and acupuncture while working as a primary care physician in a rural area for four years. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy became a facet of his practice before this medicine was scheduled in 1985. He then completed a psychiatry residency at Columbia program in New York. Scott studied cross-cultural psychiatry and completed a child/adolescent psychiatry fellowship at the University of New Mexico.

In 2010 he founded Wholeness Center in Fort Collins. This innovative clinic provides cross-disciplinary evaluation and care for all mental health concerns. Scott serves as a site Principal Investigator and therapist for the Phase III trial of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD sponsored by (MAPS). He has also published numerous articles about his research on (CBD) in mental health. Currently, Scott works extensively with psychedelic-assisted-psychotherapy. He lectures all over the world to professional groups interested in a deeper look at mental health issues, safer tools, and a paradigm-shifting perspective about transformative care.

Will Van Derveer, MD is co-founder of Integrative Psychiatry Institute (IPI), along with friend and colleague Keith Kurlander, MA. He co-created IPI as an expression of what he stands for. First, that anyone can heal, and second that we medical providers must embrace our own healing journeys in order to fully command our potency as healers.

Dr. Van Derveer spent the last 20 years innovating and testing a comprehensive approach to addressing psychiatric challenges which transcends the conventional model he learned in medical school at Vanderbilt University and residency at University of Colorado, while deeply engaging his own healing path.

He founded the Integrative Psychiatric Healing Center in in 2001 in Boulder, CO, where he currently practices. Dr. Van Derveer regards unresolved emotional trauma as the most significant root cause of psychiatric symptoms in integrative psychiatry practice, along with gut issues, hormone imbalances, inflammation, mitochondrial dysfunction, and other functional medicine challenges. He is trained in Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, Internal Family Systems, and other psychotherapy techniques. His current clinical passion is psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, which he mentors interested doctors in providing. An avid meditator, he has been a meditation instructor since 2004.

For the past several years Dr. Van Derveer has taught psychiatrists and other psychiatric providers integrative psychiatry in a number of settings, including course directing the CU psychiatry residents’ course as well as with Scott Shannon and Janet Settle at the Psychiatry MasterClass. In addition to his clinical work and teaching, he was co-investigator in 2016 a Phase II randomized clinical trial, sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). He continues to support this protocol, now in a Phase III clinical trial under break-through designation by FDA.

Dr. Van Derveer is a diplomate of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine (ABoIHM) since 2013, and he was board certified in the first wave of diplomates of the new American Board of Integrative Medicine (ABIM) in 2016.