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

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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.

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Correspondence to Jacob S. Aday.

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Aday, J.S., Bloesch, E.K. & Davoli, C.C. Can Psychedelic Drugs Attenuate Age-Related Changes in Cognition and Affect?. J Cogn Enhanc 4, 219–227 (2020).

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