An old human can’t learn new tricks right?
Us homosapiens are blessed with an incredibly adaptable neural network, snugly situated in our heads. While it was once thought that our brains don’t do much growing after we reach adulthood, the latest research says otherwise.
We can indeed grow new brain cells, form new neural pathways, and improve the overall health of our brain. The key is neurogenesis.
What is neurogenesis?
Modern techniques have proven just how much our brains can change depending on the environmental input they receive.
In fact, we now know how a whole host of factors affect our brain health. While many environmental factors can promote neurodegeneration (the death of brain cells) and lead to disease, there are also many that are neuroprotective and some that even promote neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells) and enhance brain health and function.
That’s right, there are practical things you can do everyday that will grow and improve the functionality of your brain.
Meditation, sleep and exercise are commonly talked about ways to boost neurogenesis.
However, I want to highlight five other, slightly more controversial ways…
DMT, short for dimethyltryptamine, is the main psychoactive compound in Ayahuasca – a hallucinogenic ‘brew’ traditionally used in shamanic ceremonies by indiginous tribes in the Amazon rainforest.
When consumed, either in the form of ayahuasca or as an isolated compound, DMT can cause profoundly spiritual experiences – including out-of-body experiences, journeys in other lands/dimensions, and even meetings with other ‘beings’.
Interestingly, a study from 2020 suggests that DMT stimulates neurogenesis, directly leading to detectable improvements in memory and cognition. This helps explain the antidepressant effects of DMT-containing ayahuasca that has been seen in clinical studies.
The study also suggests that the hallucinogenic effects of DMT could be divorced from the neurogenic effects as they are the result of different mechanisms within the brain. This means DMT could have huge therapeutic potential for a wide range of psychiatric and neurological disorders, including neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Banisteriopsis caapi (one of the plants used to brew Ayahuasca) has also been shown to stimulate the development of neurons from precursor cells in mice.
Chemically similar to DMT, psilocybin is a potent psychoactive compound found in many species of so-called “magic” mushroom. It’s been gaining the attention of scientists and researchers lately thanks to its potential to treat a range of mental health issues.
For example, a recent study found psilocybin combined with therapy to be approximately two-and-a-half times more effective than psychotherapy on its own, and more than four times more effective than commonly-prescribed antidepressant drugs at reduciung depression.
It is not known exactly how psilocybin exerts its antidepressant effects. However, we do that it binds to serotonin receptors in the brain, reduces activity in the amygdala – the part of the brain that deals with emotional responses, stress, and fear – and reduces activity in the “default mode network”, which is thought to be a collection of brain regions and neurotransmitters that construct the self and controls perception.
Psilocybin may also exert its effects by increasing production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which boosts neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. A study from 2021 found that psilocybin increases the number of synapses in at the brain (synaptogenesis) and enhancing serotonin signalling. Synapses are tiny gaps between brain cells.
“We not only saw a 10% increase in the number of neuronal connections, but also they were on average about 10% larger, so the connections were stronger as well,” said Yale’s Alex Kwan, senior author of the paper.
Previous research has found that psilocybin rapidly increases the expression of several genes related to neuroplasticity in the rat brain.
3. Lion’s Mane mushroom
With roots in traditional Chinese medicine, lion’s mane mushroom has been used for centuries to treat a wide range of ailments.
More recent studies have found that lion’s mane mushrooms contain two special compounds that can stimulate the growth of brain cells: hericenones and erinacines.
These compounds stimulate the production of nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which are proteins that stimulate the production of new cells and strengthen existing ones.
NGF also plays an important role in forming myelin, the sheath around nerve cells that helps brain cells do their job. BDNF increases brain plasticity, which helps your brain cells stay resilient in the face of stress or aging.
Many people like to combine lion’s mane mushroom with psilocybin microdoses as they believe that the two can work synergystically together.
4. Low dose THC
THC is interesting. While large doses can disrupt short-term memory, smaller doses can actually improve it. This is known as a biphasic dose response.
The effect of improving memory is most pronounced in older animals who are given low doses of THC often. Moreover, recent studies demonstrate that THC paradoxically promotes hippocampal neurogenesis (formation of new brain cells), prevents neurodegenerative processes occurring in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease, protects from inflammation-induced cognitive damage, and restores memory and cognitive function in old mice.
5. Low dose alcohol
Studies have shown that binging on alcohol kills neurons and impairs neurogenesis.
Alcohol has been described by researchers as a pharmacologically promiscuous drug that acts on many targets, several of which are involved in adult neurogenesis.
Nicotine, the psychoactive ingredient in tobacco, has found to be neuroprotective, possibly protecting against the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease by providing significant improvements in attention, memory, and psychomotor speed.
Other studies haave shown that nicotine can increase the expression of neurotrophic factors and growth factors, which may lead to neurogenesis.
Ketamine, one fo the most widely used anesthetic agent in the world, has been shown by numerous studies to have fast-acting antidepressant effects.
While the full mechanism by which ketamine induces these effects is still unknown, researchers have discovered that ketamine increases levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that plays a role in the growth and maintenance of neurons.
Research has shown that drugs such as Prozac and other antidepressants boost neurogenesis. In fact, some experiments suggest that neurogenesis in the hippocampus is necessary for antidepressants to work.
However, antidepressants don’t work 30 to 50 percent of patients and often come with problematic side-effects.
The brain is highly adaptable and growing new brain cells is possible well into adulthood. While learning new skills and exercise are common ways to promote neurogenesis, there are many controversial substances that can also help.
However, one should be careful and only use these substances with full knowledge of the risks and side effects. Some of the substances mentioned in this article may only work when precise doses are taken and may even have opposing effects at different doses.
After all, the poison is in the dose. So make sure you do your research before experimenting with any of the substances discussed above.