Chemistry and Synaptic Transmitters

Chemistry and Synaptic Transmitters

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Chemistry and Synaptic Transmitters

The most common psychoactive substances can be divided into
depressants (i.e., alcohol, sedatives, hypnotics), stimulants (i.e.,
cocaine, amphetamines, ecstasy), opioids (i.e., morphine and heroine),
and hallucinogens (i.e., PCP, LSD, cannabis). The brain has different
effects to different psychoactive substances. They bind to different
receptor types, and can increase or decrease the activity of neurons
through several different mechanisms. Consequently, these
psychoactive substances have different behavioral effects, different
rates of development of tolerance, different withdrawal symptoms, and
different short-term and long-term effects (Vaccarino & Rotzinger,

In this team project we will take a closer look at the
hallucinogen, LSD by explaining the chemistry and route of access of
LSD, synaptic transmitters and the parts of neurons affected,
inhibitory/excitatory potential changes, physiological changes, primary
behavior changes, side effects of behavior changes, and effects
reported by users.

LSD is considered to be one of, if not the, most potent
hallucinogenic drug known (Leicht, 1996). To understand LSD first we
will give a brief history of how LSD came into existence.

In 1938, Albert Hoffman was an employee in the pharmacological
department of Sandoz, in Basel, Switzerland. Hoffman was studying
derivatives of lysergic acid, including systematically reacting the acid
group with various reagents, to produce the corresponding amides,
anhydrides, esters, etc. One of these derivatives was the
diethylamide, made by addition of the –NC2H5)2 group, and it was
named LSD-25. But the new substance didn’t appear to have any
particularly useful medical properties, although the research report
noted, in passing, that “the experimental animals became restless
during the narcosis”. (May, 1998). LSD was not looked at for the next
five years until Hoffman couldn’t get this new substance out of his
mind and decided to reexamine LSD. Hoffman stated: “A peculiar
presentiment- the feeling that this substance could possess properties
other than those established in the first investigations- induced me,
five years after the first synthesis, to produce LSD-25 once again so
that a sample could be given to the pharmacological department for
further tests.” So, in the spring of 1943, he repeated the synthesis of
LSD-25. Hoffman is quoted in his laboratory journal on April 19, 1943.

17:00: Beginning dizziness, feelings of anxiety, visual distortions,

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D-Lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD is a structure comprised of four
cyclic structures and three notable functional groups- two ethyl groups
and a methyl group. The structure of LSD bears a striking similarity to
that of serotonin, which is the molecule principally responsible for
determination of mood. A useful explanation for the brain’s receptivity
to LSD is its structural similarity to serotonin. (Fichman, 2004). 5-HT is
implicated in the regulation of many systems known to be effected by
LSD. This evidence indicates that many of the effects of LSD are
through serotonin mediated pathways. Subsequent research revealed
that LSD not only has affinities for 5-HT receptors but also for
receptors of histamine, Ach, dopamine, and the catecholines:
epinephrine and norepinephrine (Leicht, 1997).

Two areas of the brainstem that are thought to be involved in
LSD’s pathway are the Locus Coeruleus (LC) and the Raphe Nuclei.
The LC is a small cluster of norepinephrine containing neurons in the
pons beneath the 4th ventricle. The LC is responsible for the majority
of norepinephrine neuronal input in most brain regions (Snyder, 1986).
It has axons which extend to a number of sites including the
cerebellum, thalamus, hypothalamus, cerebral cortex, and
hippocampus. (Leicht, 1997).

A single LC neuron can effect a large target area. Stimulation of
LC neurons results in a number of different effects depending on the
post-synaptic cell. The LC is part of the ascending reticular activating
system which is known to be involved in the regulation of attention,
arousal, and the sleep-wake cycle. Electrical stimulation of the LC in
rats results in hyper-responsive reactions to stimuli (visual, auditory,
tactile, etc) (Nichols, Martin, Wallace, 1992). LSD has been found to
enhance the reactivity of the LC sensory stimulations. While many
effects of LSD can be described by its effects on the LC, it is apparent
that LSD’s effects on the LC are indirect (Leicht, 1997).

While norepinephrine activity throughout the brain is mainly
mediated by the LC, the majority of serotoneric neurons are located in
the Raphe Nuclei (RN). The RN is located in the middle of the
brainstem from the midbrain to the medulla. It innervates the spinal
cord where it is involved in the regulation of pain. Like the LC, the RN
innervated wide areas of the brain. Along with the LC, the RN is part
of the ascending reticular activating system. 5-HT inhibits ascending
traffic in the reticular system; perhaps protecting the brain from
sensory overload. Post-synaptic 5-HT receptors in the visual areas are
also believed to be inhibitory. Thus, it is apparent that an interruption
of 5-HT activity would result in disinhibition, and therefore e
excitation, of various sensory modalities (Leicht, 1997).

Current thought is that the mechanism of LSD is related to the
regulation of 5-HT activity in the RN. The RN is also influenced by
GABAergic, catecholamergic, and histamergic neurons. LSD has been
shown to also have affinities for many of these receptors. Thus it is
possible that some of its effects may be mediated through other
pathways. Current research however had focused on the effects of
LSD on 5-HT activity. (Leicht, 1997).


In the body, the brain and spinal cord make up what is known as the
central nervous system (CNS). Neurons in the human body “connect”
to other neurons and communicates with one another through
electrical signals. These electrical signals must pass between the
small gap between neurons before it can be transmitted. These gaps
known as synapses are between neurons. Messages are constantly
passed through the synapses between our neurons, and these
messages allow us to sense, to think, and to act upon these feelings
and thoughts (Bacon, Cagle, Mikowski, Rosol, 1996).

There are two types of synapses between neurons: chemical and
electrical. Chemical synapses are more common and are the type
discussed in this paper. When an action potential (AP) travels down a
pre-synaptic cell, vesicles containing neurotransmitter are released
into the synapse where they effect receptors on the post synaptic cell.
Synaptic activity can be terminated through reuptake of the
neurotransmitter to the pre-synaptic cell, the presence of enzymes
which inactivate the transmitter, or simple diffusion (Leicht, 1996).

A pre-synaptic neuron can act on the postsynaptic neuron
through direct or indirect pathways. In a direct pathway, the post-
synaptic receptor is also an ion channel. The binding of a
neurotransmitter to its receptor on the post-synaptic cell directly
modifies the activity of the channel. Neurotransmitters can have
excitatory or inhibitory effects (Leicht, 1996). Excitatory
neurotransmitters make it easier for the cell to allow positive ions in,
and therefore decrease the threshold, or the smallest stimulation that
will cause the cell to generate an impulse. Inhibitory
neurotransmitters, on the other hand, make the neuron’s membrane
more permeable to negative ions, and increase the threshold (Bacon et
al., 1996). Many neurotransmitters that have system-wide effects such
as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and 5-HT work by an indirect pathway.
In an indirect pathway, the post-synaptic receptor acts on an ion
channel through indirect means such as a secondary messenger
system. Many indirect receptors such as muscarinic, Ach, and 5-HT
involve the use of G proteins. Indirect mechanisms often will alter the
behavior of a neuron without effecting its resting potential (Leicht,

Although the precise biochemical action of hallucinogens is
unknown, it is believed that it probably stems from a complex reaction
with serotonin (5-HT) from the cortex to the spinal cord. LSD seems to
closely resemble serotonin in structure. Serotonin exists mainly in the
Locus Coeruleus and RN. The chemical then is said to play a large
role in moderating behaviors and moods. The actions of serotonin and
the effects of LSD on the body are inextricably linked. The
numerological pathways that allow serotonin to regulate so many of
the body’s activities are the same ones that allow the LSD molecule to
profoundly affect the body. The serotonergic neurons and the bodies’
response to the disruption of the normal pathways are where the basis
of the chemistry lie (Bacon et al., 1996). Even to this day, there is still
much to study about how LSD affect the neurons, especially at the
synaptic level.

With the serotonin neurons, there appear to be two types of
receptors to which LSD and 5-HT both can attach. These are known
as 5HT1 AND 5HT2 receptors. The first is part of pre-synaptic neurons
and the latter is part of the post-synaptic neurons. When a molecule
becomes chemically attached to 5HT1 receptors the neuron slows or
stops in production of serotonin, creating a negative feedback loop,
where excess serotonin will halt further production. When a molecule
binds to the 5HT2 receptors, the post-synaptic neuron is inhibited, and
it is more difficult for it to generate an action potential. Serotonin will
attach itself to either of these two receptors with equal frequency, but
it has been proposed that LSD prefers the 5HT1 receptor to the 5HT2
receptor (Bacon et al.,1996).


Bacon, A., Cagle, H., Mikowski, P., Rosol, M. (1996). The
effect of LSD on the human brain. Retrieved Jan. 25,
2005, from˜cem181h.projects/96/

Leicht, I. (1997). LSD- Origins and neurobiological
implications. Retrieved Jan. 25, 2005, from˜ivl/writing/non_fiction/lsd/.

May, P. (1998). Lysergic acid diethylamide- LSD. December
1998. Retrieved Jan. 25, 2005 from

Nicholls, J., Martin, R., Wallace, B. (1992). From neuron
to brain: Acellular and molecular approach to the
function of the nervous system. Retrieved Jan. 25,

Palfai, T., Jankiewicz, H. (2001). Drugs and human
behavior. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Snyder (1986). Drugs and the brain. Sci-Am Books Inc.
Retrieved Jan. 25, 2005, from˜

World Health Organization. (2004). Neuroscience of
psychoactive substance use and dependence summary.
Geneva, Switzerland: Franco Vaccarino and Susan
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