Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s

Hallucinogenic molecules and the brain

Psychedelic drugs seems to be enjoying a ‘moment’. After decades of being vilified and  declared illegal (in many jurisdictions), psychedelic (or hallucinogenic) drugs are once again being tested for use in therapy. A Sept. 1, 2017 article by Diana Kwon for The Scientist describes some of the latest research (I’ve excerpted the section on molecules; Note: Links have been removed),

Mind-bending molecules


All the classic psychedelic drugs—psilocybin, LSD, and N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the active component in ayahuasca—activate serotonin 2A (5-HT2A) receptors, which are distributed throughout the brain. In all likelihood, this receptor plays a key role in the drugs’ effects. Krähenmann [Rainer Krähenmann, a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Zurich]] and his colleagues in Zurich have discovered that ketanserin, a 5-HT2A receptor antagonist, blocks LSD’s hallucinogenic properties and prevents individuals from entering a dreamlike state or attributing personal relevance to the experience.12,13

Other research groups have found that, in rodent brains, 2,5-dimethoxy-4-iodoamphetamine (DOI), a highly potent and selective 5-HT2A receptor agonist, can modify the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)—a protein that, among other things, regulates neuronal survival, differentiation, and synaptic plasticity. This has led some scientists to hypothesize that, through this pathway, psychedelics may enhance neuroplasticity, the ability to form new neuronal connections in the brain.14 “We’re still working on that and trying to figure out what is so special about the receptor and where it is involved,” says Katrin Preller, a postdoc studying psychedelics at the University of Zurich. “But it seems like this combination of serotonin 2A receptors and BDNF leads to a kind of different organizational state in the brain that leads to what people experience under the influence of psychedelics.”

This serotonin receptor isn’t limited to the central nervous system. Work by Charles Nichols, a pharmacology professor at Louisiana State University, has revealed that 5-HT2A receptor agonists can reduce inflammation throughout the body. Nichols and his former postdoc Bangning Yu stumbled upon this discovery by accident, while testing the effects of DOI on smooth muscle cells from rat aortas. When they added this drug to the rodent cells in culture, it blocked the effects of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), a key inflammatory cytokine.

“It was completely unexpected,” Nichols recalls. The effects were so bewildering, he says, that they repeated the experiment twice to convince themselves that the results were correct. Before publishing the findings in 2008,15 they tested a few other 5-HT2A receptor agonists, including LSD, and found consistent anti-inflammatory effects, though none of the drugs’ effects were as strong as DOI’s. “Most of the psychedelics I have tested are about as potent as a corticosteroid at their target, but there’s something very unique about DOI that makes it much more potent,” Nichols says. “That’s one of the mysteries I’m trying to solve.”

After seeing the effect these drugs could have in cells, Nichols and his team moved on to whole animals. When they treated mouse models of system-wide inflammation with DOI, they found potent anti-inflammatory effects throughout the rodents’ bodies, with the strongest effects in the small intestine and a section of the main cardiac artery known as the aortic arch.16 “I think that’s really when it felt that we were onto something big, when we saw it in the whole animal,” Nichols says.

The group is now focused on testing DOI as a potential therapeutic for inflammatory diseases. In a 2015 study, they reported that DOI could block the development of asthma in a mouse model of the condition,17 and last December, the team received a patent to use DOI for four indications: asthma, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome. They are now working to move the treatment into clinical trials. The benefit of using DOI for these conditions, Nichols says, is that because of its potency, only small amounts will be required—far below the amounts required to produce hallucinogenic effects.

In addition to opening the door to a new class of diseases that could benefit from psychedelics-inspired therapy, Nichols’s work suggests “that there may be some enduring changes that are mediated through anti-inflammatory effects,” Griffiths [Roland Griffiths, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University] says. Recent studies suggest that inflammation may play a role in a number of psychological disorders, including depression18 and addiction.19

“If somebody has neuroinflammation and that’s causing depression, and something like psilocybin makes it better through the subjective experience but the brain is still inflamed, it’s going to fall back into the depressed rut,” Nichols says. But if psilocybin is also treating the inflammation, he adds, “it won’t have that rut to fall back into.”

If it turns out that psychedelics do have anti-inflammatory effects in the brain, the drugs’ therapeutic uses could be even broader than scientists now envision. “In terms of neurodegenerative disease, every one of these disorders is mediated by inflammatory cytokines,” says Juan Sanchez-Ramos, a neuroscientist at the University of South Florida who in 2013 reported that small doses of psilocybin could promote neurogenesis in the mouse hippocampus.20 “That’s why I think, with Alzheimer’s, for example, if you attenuate the inflammation, it could help slow the progression of the disease.”

For anyone who was never exposed to the anti-hallucinogenic drug campaigns, this turn of events is mindboggling. There was a great deal of concern especially with LSD in the 1960s and it was not entirely unfounded. In my own family, a distant cousin, while under the influence of the drug, jumped off a building believing he could fly.  So, Kwon’s story opening with a story about someone being treated successfully for depression with a psychedelic drug was surprising to me . Why these drugs are being used successfully for psychiatric conditions when so much damage was apparently done under the influence in decades past may have something to do with taking the drugs in a controlled environment and, possibly, smaller dosages.

Nuclear magnetic resonance microscope breaks records

Dutch researchers have found a way to apply the principles underlying magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to a microscope designed *for* examining matter and life at the nanoscale. From a July 15, 2016 news item on phys.org,

A new nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) microscope gives researchers an improved instrument to study fundamental physical processes. It also offers new possibilities for medical science—for example, to better study proteins in Alzheimer’s patients’ brains. …

A Leiden Institute of Physics press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

If you get a knee injury, physicians use an MRI machine to look right through the skin and see what exactly is the problem. For this trick, doctors make use of the fact that our body’s atomic nuclei are electrically charged and spin around their axis. Just like small electromagnets they induce their own magnetic field. By placing the knee in a uniform magnetic field, the nuclei line up with their axis pointing in the same direction. The MRI machine then sends a specific type of radio waves through the knee, causing some axes to flip. After turning off this signal, those nuclei flip back after some time, under excitation of a small radio wave. Those waves give away the atoms’ location, and provide physicians with an accurate image of the knee.


MRI is the medical application of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), which is based on the same principle and was invented by physicists to conduct fundamental research on materials. One of the things they study with NMR is the so-called relaxation time. This is the time scale at which the nuclei flip back and it gives a lot of information about a material’s properties.


To study materials on the smallest of scales as well, physicists go one step further and develop NMR microscopes, with which they study the mechanics behind physical processes at the level of a group of atoms. Now Leiden PhD students Jelmer Wagenaar and Arthur de Haan have built an NMR microscope, together with principal investigator Tjerk Oosterkamp, that operates at a record temperature of 42 milliKelvin—close to absolute zero. In their article in Physical Review Applied they prove it works by measuring the relaxation time of copper. They achieved a thousand times higher sensitivity than existing NMR microscopes—also a world record.


With their microscope, they give physicists an instrument to conduct fundamental research on many physical phenomena, like systems displaying strange behavior in extreme cold. And like NMR eventually led to MRI machines in hospitals, NMR microscopes have great potential too. Wagenaar: ‘One example is that you might be able to use our technique to study Alzheimer patients’ brains at the molecular level, in order to find out how iron is locked up in proteins.’

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Probing the Nuclear Spin-Lattice Relaxation Time at the Nanoscale by J. J. T. Wagenaar, A. M. J. den Haan, J. M. de Voogd, L. Bossoni, T. A. de Jong, M. de Wit, K. M. Bastiaans, D. J. Thoen, A. Endo, T. M. Klapwijk, J. Zaanen, and T. H. Oosterkamp. Phys. Rev. Applied 6, 014007 DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevApplied.6.014007 Published 15 July 2016

This paper is open access.

*’fro’ changed to ‘for’ on Aug. 3, 2016.

Device detects molecules associated with neurodegenerative diseases

It’s nice to get notice of research in South America, an area for which I rarely stumble across any news releases. Brazilian researchers have developed a device that could help diagnose neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and and Parkinson’s as well as some cancers according to a May 20, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

A biosensor developed by researchers at the National Nanotechnology Laboratory (LNNano) in Campinas, São Paulo State, Brazil, has been proven capable of detecting molecules associated with neurodegenerative diseases and some types of cancer.

The device is basically a single-layer organic nanometer-scale transistor on a glass slide. It contains the reduced form of the peptide glutathione (GSH), which reacts in a specific way when it comes into contact with the enzyme glutathione S-transferase (GST), linked to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and breast cancer, among other diseases. The GSH-GST reaction is detected by the transistor, which can be used for diagnostic purposes.

The project focuses on the development of point-of-care devices by researchers in a range of knowledge areas, using functional materials to produce simple sensors and microfluidic systems for rapid diagnosis.

A May 19, 2016 Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP) press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“Platforms like this one can be deployed to diagnose complex diseases quickly, safely and relatively cheaply, using nanometer-scale systems to identify molecules of interest in the material analyzed,” explained Carlos Cesar Bof Bufon, Head of LNNano’s Functional Devices & Systems Lab (DSF) and a member of the research team for the project, whose principal investigator is Lauro Kubota, a professor at the University of Campinas’s Chemistry Institute (IQ-UNICAMP).

In addition to portability and low cost, the advantages of the nanometric biosensor include its sensitivity in detecting molecules, according to Bufon.

“This is the first time organic transistor technology has been used in detecting the pair GSH-GST, which is important in diagnosing degenerative diseases, for example,” he explained. “The device can detect such molecules even when they’re present at very low levels in the examined material, thanks to its nanometric sensitivity.” A nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter (10-9 meter), or one millionth of a millimeter.

The system can be adapted to detect other substances, such as molecules linked to different diseases and elements present in contaminated material, among other applications. This requires replacing the molecules in the sensor with others that react with the chemicals targeted by the test, which are known as analytes.

The team is working on paper-based biosensors to lower the cost even further and to improve portability and facilitate fabrication as well as disposal.

The challenge is that paper is an insulator in its usual form. Bufon has developed a technique to make paper conductive and capable of transporting sensing data by impregnating cellulose fibers with polymers that have conductive properties.

The technique is based on in situ synthesis of conductive polymers. For the polymers not to remain trapped on the surface of the paper, they have to be synthesized inside and between the pores of the cellulose fibers. This is done by gas-phase chemical polymerization: a liquid oxidant is infiltrated into the paper, which is then exposed to monomers in the gas phase. A monomer is a molecule of low molecular weight capable of reacting with identical or different molecules of low molecular weight to form a polymer.

The monomers evaporate under the paper and penetrate the pores of the fibers at the submicrometer scale. Inside the pores, they blend with the oxidant and begin the polymerization process right there, impregnating the entire material.

The polymerized paper acquires the conductive properties of the polymers. This conductivity can be adjusted by manipulating the element embedded in the cellulose fibers, depending on the application for which the paper is designed. Thus, the device can be electrically conductive, allowing current to flow without significant losses, or semiconductive, interacting with specific molecules and functioning as a physical, chemical or electrochemical sensor.

There’s no mention of a published paper.