April 29, 2021

Thanks for reading Axios Science. This week's newsletter — about psychedelic-like drugs, an AI for monitoring endangered orcas and more — is 1,299 words, about a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Psychedelics open the mind up to scientists

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

A renewed interest in using psychedelic drugs to help treat psychiatric disorders is fueling a search for compounds that have similar effects but don't produce hallucinations.

The big picture: There is a tremendous need for new tools to help people with the mental and substance use disorders that are a leading cause of disability globally.

  • Studies have discovered that using psilocybin — a compound found in psychedelic mushrooms — in tandem with psychotherapy can help some people with treatment-resistant depression, anxiety around life-threatening illness, addiction and other disorders.
  • But the current treatments induce hallucinations and must be taken under medical supervision, and they may not be an option for people who have heart disease or a family history of schizophrenia.

How it works: When someone takes magic mushrooms or another classic psychedelic like LSD, the compounds in the drugs bind receptors for serotonin — a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood — on the surface of brain cells.

  • This can temporarily change communication between neurons in the brain, breaking down barriers between visual and information-assessing regions rich in a serotonin receptor called 5-HT2A, which leads to hallucinations, Inverse's Katie MacBride explains.

For some people with treatment-resistant depression, treatment with psilocybin found in psychedelic mushrooms can reduce symptoms of depression for up to six months.

  • Psychedelics also appear to create new, long-lasting connections between brain cells — a rewiring known as neuroplasticity that some experts suspect is key to the drugs' benefits.
  • But, Matthew Johnson, who studies psychedelic drugs at Johns Hopkins University, says: "We don't know what is mediating the biological effects of the sustained change."

The big debate: Whether patients need to go on a mind-altering trip to reap the benefits of a psychedelic treatment.

  • On the one hand: In several studies, people in experimental studies using psilocybin to address disorders like depression and anxiety attributed positive changes in their mood, attitude and behavior to the mystical experiences of a trip. That's led some researchers to argue that altered states are key to the therapy's benefits.
  • And on the other: Hallucinations may contribute to the therapy's benefit but may not be necessary, says David Olson, a biochemist at the University of California Davis. He points to patients treated with psychedelics who don't have strong mystical experiences but still find treatment helpful and to MDMA, another psychedelic that usually doesn't produce hallucinations but has been shown to help treat PTSD.

Why it matters: For some people, hallucinations or mystical experiences may be a negative side effect of any potential drug.

  • And rolling out a treatment that typically requires dozens of hours of therapy with more than one therapist to ensure safeguards for someone being put in a vulnerable state presents practical challenges, says Boris Heifets, a neuroscientist who studies psychedelic drugs at Stanford University.
  • "For scaling and democratizing this treatment, non-hallucinogenic variants are really critical," says Olson, who is also a co-founder of Delix Therapeutics, which is trying to develop such drugs.
  • Both psychedelic and psychedelic-like drugs are needed, says Johnson. "We’ve been stuck in terms of psychiatric tools."

What's new: Olson and Lin Tian, who builds tools for studying neural circuits in her lab at UC Davis, developed a fluorescent sensor to screen whether a compound will have a hallucinogenic effect by detecting if and how it activates the serotonin receptor, 5-HT2A.

  • In the future, Lin says, they want to use the sensor to pinpoint where a drug goes in the brain, how it acts on a receptor and how that affects behavior. "It's not just to find new drug candidates but also to understand the disease mechanism."

What to watch: A handful of companies are trying to identify and catalog non-hallucinogenic compounds.

Go deeper.

2. Catch up quick on COVID-19

Data: CSSE Johns Hopkins University; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

"New coronavirus infections fell by roughly 16% over the past week in the U.S. — a big improvement after weeks of stasis," Axios' Sam Baker and Andrew Witherspoon write.

People who are fully vaccinated don't have to wear masks outdoors, per the CDC.

mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna were 94% effective in preventing hospitalization for COVID-19 among adults 65 years and older, Axios' Marisa Fernandez reports.

India's COVID-19 crisis is getting worse, Axios' Tina Reed writes.

3. An AI to monitor endangered orca health

Pod of Southern Resident killer whales in September 2020. Photo: Vulcan

A new machine learning tool is cutting the time and cost of tracking endangered Southern Resident killer whales in the Pacific Northwest.

Why it matters: The AI tool, developed by researchers at Vulcan and Sealife Response + Rehab + Research (SR3), can help to monitor the health of individual orcas quickly and flag those that are vulnerable so agencies can assist them.

Background: There are just 75 Southern Resident killer whales remaining in the Salish Sea of Washington state and British Columbia, Canada, including a calf born this year.

  • Holly Fearnbach of SR3 and John Durban of Oregon State University have been monitoring the population for 14 years, first using helicopters then drones to take aerial images of the pods.
  • They can collect almost 2,000 images of the animals in a single flight, aided by a laser altimeter that allows them to make precise measurements of individual whales. But a season's worth of data typically takes six months to analyze.

What's new: The Aquatic Mammal Photogrammetry Tool cut that process down to six weeks.

  • It uses algorithms that detect orcas in an image and then identify and measure different parts of the whale to determine the proportions of the body.
  • A key measure is around the face, where a severe loss of body fat that indicates starvation can be seen as indents. This "peanut head," as researchers call it, can be measured as the ratio between the bottom and top of the eye patch.
  • The tool also identifies individuals in the pods by analyzing the shape of a gray patch near the whale's dorsal fin that is unique to each whale.

What's next: Researchers still supervise and manually confirm parts of the process, but they plan to automate more as the tool is honed, according to Sam McKennoch, who leads Vulcan's machine learning team.

  • The researchers want to use the tool to monitor other killer whales, small dolphins and harbor seals, McKennoch said.

5. Worthy of your time

DNA of giant ‘corpse flower’ parasite surprises biologists (Christie Wilcox — Quanta)

Biden has elevated the job of science adviser. Is that what science needs? (William J. Broad — NYT)

25,000 barrels found at dump site for DDT chemicals off L.A. coast (Rebecca Falconer — Axios)

A revolution is sweeping the science of ancient diseases (Sarah Zhang — The Atlantic)

6. Something wondrous

A kulan digs a well in Mongolia. Photo: Peter Kaczensky

Wells dug by wild donkeys and horses in the desert can benefit other animals and trees, scientists report today.

Why it matters: Feral donkeys and horses have a reputation for harming — not helping — the ecosystems they inhabit.

  • The study demonstrates the animals are part of the ecosystem and that efforts to eradicate them in some places may have unintended consequences, study co-author ecologist Arian Wallach of the University of Technology, Sydney tells Jonathan Lambert at Science News.

What they found: A team of researchers — led by Erick Lundgren of Aarhus University — mapped water in wells and four groundwater-fed streams in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona during three summers.

  • The animal-engineered wells increased the amount of water available to other animals and plants, especially as temperatures climbed and water tables receded, the team reports today in Science.
  • At times, wells were the only available source of water at one site.
  • 57 vertebrate species (mule deer, bobcats, Woodhouse's scrub-jays and others) drank from the wells — about 64% higher on average than at dry sites and on par with the number at the streams, the researchers report.
  • And, the wells served as reservoirs for Fremont cottonwood tree seedlings to get started.

What's next: Determining if equid engineering is an overall net benefit to drylands and whether the benefits extend to other ecosystems, experts told Science News.