The psychedelic drug (R)-DOI is known to stimulate serotonin receptors associated with anti-inflammatory activity.
In a study published in the American Journal of Physiology - Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology, the authors identify the drug (R)-DOI as one that can promote powerful anti-inflammatory activity within the body.
"These drugs are known only for their effects in the brain," says study author Dr. Charles Nichols. "What we have demonstrated for the first time is that they are also effective in treating physiological diseases outside of the brain, a completely new and exciting role for this class of drug."
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), asthma affects more than 25 million people in the US. Of these, around 7 million are children.
Asthma causes the airways to narrow and become inflamed. When these airways react to certain inhaled substances, the muscles around them tighten, and increased levels of mucus can be produced. Together, these reactions lead to symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath and coughing.
Common forms of therapy for asthma include the use of bronchodilators - medications that relax the muscles surrounding the airways - and inhaled glucocorticoids; medications used in an inhaler that reduce inflammation.
The drug was administered at a concentration that would not influence behavior
The study builds upon previous work from Dr. Nichols and the team from Lousiana State University (LSU) regarding serotonin receptors. They identified that activating serotonin 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT)2A receptors resulted in strong anti-inflammatory activity within gut and vascular tissue.
"The small molecule hormone and neurotransmitter serotonin has long been known to be involved in inflammatory processes," write the authors, "however, its precise role in asthma is unknown."
(R)-DOI is a known agonist of 5-HT2A receptors, and so the team decided to test the psychedelic drug in an established mouse model of allergic asthma.
Administration of the drug prevented inflammation of the airways, overproduction of mucus and increased levels of airway sensitivity. In addition, the drug deactivated specific genes in the lung associated with the immune response. Together, these effects prevented the development of allergic asthma.
The researchers achieved these results by administering the drug at a concentration 50-100 times less than that which would influence the behavior of the recipient.
Drug could 'heal the body as well as the mind'
Dr. Nichols explains the importance of the study's findings:
"Not only is this a significant breakthrough in the field of study of serotonin and psychiatric drugs, but it is a breakthrough in the field of asthma as well. We have identified an entirely new anti-inflammatory mechanism for the treatment of asthma in the clinic that could someday be administered in an inhaler or a daily pill."
These effects have so far only been tested using a mouse model, but they do offer the foundation for further research which could one day lead to new forms of treatment for allergic airways disease.
Psychedelic drugs have previously been used for therapeutic purposes, and many studies have focused on harnessing the positive effects they have on the brain in forms of treatment.
"Overall, given the recent interest and success using these drugs for psychiatric therapies in the clinic, our research at LSU Health New Orleans is the first to show that they have potential to heal the body as well as the mind," Dr. Nichols concludes.
Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study investigating the science behind dream-like states caused by psychedelic drugs, examining the brain activity triggered by their consumption.