Can Psychedelic Drugs Attenuate Age-Related Changes in Cognition and Affect ?, Jacob S. Aday et al., 2019

Can Psychedelic Drugs Attenuate Age-Related Changes in Cognition and Affect ?

Jacob S. Aday, Emily K. Bloesch, & Christopher C. Davoli

Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, August 2019

DOI: 10.1007/s41465-019-00151-6



Older adulthood can be characterized by various cognitive and affective changes. In general, older adults show declines in creativity and executive functioning. They also score lower in openness to experience, empathy, and many suffer from a paucity of meaningful experiences. Further, depression, pessimism, and suicide can be major concerns for this population. Although currently there are few interventions that can effectively address these changes, recent findings from psychedelic science suggest myriad parallels between the effects of these drugs and the cognitive/affective shifts seen in older adulthood. Studies have shown that psychedelics are associated with enhanced creativity and executive functioning. They can also lead to increases in openness and empathy, and induce personally meaningful experiences. Lastly, psychedelics’ efficacy for treating mood disorders and their role in palliative care are rapidly growing areas of scientific research. In this article, we analyze findings from contemporary psychedelic studies and integrate them with research on cognitive/affective changes in older adulthood to assess
whether these drugs have potential to be incorporated into older adult research. We also assess the intuitive follow-up questions of potential mechanisms of action and safety concerns. Findings indicate that psychedelics have effects on a number of cognitive/affective processes that are altered in older adulthood, and are relatively safe when used with professional preparation and supervision. Increased neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, connectedness, and mystical experiences have been argued to underlie cognitive/affective changes. However, further research is needed to overcome current experimental limitations such as generalizability, unstandardized dosages, inadequate controls, and self-selection/experimenter biases.

Keywords : psychedelics, cognition, affect, aging, well-being


A number of cognitive and affective changes have been documented in older adulthood, which is typically conceptualized as beginning in one’s 60s (Salthouse, 2009). These changes can include declines in creativity and generating novel ideas (Price & Tinker, 2014), impaired executive functioning (Baudouin, Isingrini, & Vanneste, 2019), decreased openness to experience (Donnellan & Lucas, 2008), and decreased empathy (Gruhn, Rebucal, Diehl, & Labouvie-Vief, 2008). Further, although depression scores generally drop after early adulthood, late-life depression is one of the most common causes of emotional suffering in older adults (Blazer, 2003; Wang & Blazer, 2015), and the elderly have higher rates of suicide than younger adults (De Leo & Meneghel, 2001; Kumar, Anish, & George, 2015). These changes in negative affect may be due in part to a lack of meaningful experiences: Baum (1988) found that when elderly persons were asked to recount their most meaningful life experiences, none of the 50
participants reported an event after the age of 40. Lastly, the number of neurons in the brain decreases in older age as neurons that die off are not replaced as efficiently (Galvan & Jin, 2007). Because neurogenesis is thought to play a major role in age-related cognitive and affective deficits, interventions which stimulate neurogenesis may build-up a cognitive reserve which could help reduce the intellectual and emotional burdens in late-life (Xu, Yu, Tan, & Tan, 2015).

This is not to say that aging is inherently negative as many older adults experience high life satisfaction and emotional stability (Charles & Carstensen, 2010; Scheibe & Carstensen, 2010). Yet, risk factors for cognitive and affective decline can have a cumulative effect across individuals’ lifespans ultimately leading to impairment (Camacho, Strawbridge, Cohen, & Kaplan, 1993; Zeki Al Hazzouri et al., 2014). Addressing these risk factors can stave off cognitive decline (Mossello et al., 2008), and identifying holistic treatments which target multiple risk factors could facilitate healthy aging (Cesari, Vellas, & Gambassi, 2013). Thus, while older adults show changes in cognition and affect at the group-level, many variables can exert compensatory effects on individual trajectories (Smith, 2016).

Psychedelic drugs such as lysergic acid diethylamide-25 (LSD), psilocybin, and ayahuasca have been shown to induce alterations in cognition and affect that run counter to the changes seen in older adulthood. Research into psychedelic drugs blossomed in the mid-20th century but was put to a halt in the late 1960s as the War on Drugs emerged (Aday, Bloesch, & Davoli, 2019). However, the last 10–15 years has seen a renaissance of psychedelic research, and their public stigma seems to be waning as evidenced by recent positive pieces in mainstream media outlets (e.g., the New York Times Carroll, 2017; Wall Street Journal Pollan, 2018; Business Insider Brodwin, 2018) and successful decriminalization efforts in parts of the US (Aday, Davoli, & Bloesch, in-press). There are many parallels between the findings from these new studies and psychological changes in older adulthood. First, psychedelics have been shown to increase divergent (Kuypers et al., 2016) and convergent creativity (Uthaug et al., 2018). They can also lead to long-lasting increases in the personality trait of openness (MacLean, Johnson, &
Griffiths, 2011) as well as increasing empathy (Pokorny et al., 2017). Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy has been shown to have promising effects on depression (Griffiths et al., 2016; Ross et al., 2016). Relatedly, psychedelic use is associated with decreased psychological distress and suicidality (Hendricks et al., 2015). Psychedelics may also address the lack of meaningful experiences in older adulthood: In one study, two-thirds of participants reported their psychedelic session as being one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their life (Griffiths et al., 2006). Their role in palliative care is also a rapidly growing area of study (Shelton & Hendricks, 2016). Lastly, there is emerging evidence in animal models that psychedelics can stimulate neurogenesis (Catlow, Jalloh, & Sanchez-Ramos, 2016; Lima da Cruz, Moulin, Petiz, & Leao, 2018; Morales-Garcia et al., 2017) and neuroplasticity (Ly et al., 2018), which may be key mechanisms facilitating improvements. Altogether, the reviewed literature suggests many parallels between cognitive/affective changes in older adulthood and the effects of psychedelic drugs. In this paper, we analyze recent findings in psychedelic research and synthesize them with studies on cognitive and affective changes in late-life to determine whether these substances have potential to be incorporated into older adult research.