The serotonin 5-HT2C receptor and the non-addictive nature of classic hallucinogens

J Psychopharmacol. 2017 Jan;31(1):127-143. doi: 10.1177/0269881116677104. Epub 2016 Nov 15.


Classic hallucinogens share pharmacology as serotonin 5-HT2A, 5-HT2B, and 5-HT2C receptor agonists. Unique among most other Schedule 1 drugs, they are generally non-addictive and can be effective tools in the treatment of addiction. Mechanisms underlying these attributes are largely unknown. However, many preclinical studies show that 5-HT2C agonists counteract the addictive effects of drugs from several classes, suggesting this pharmacological property of classic hallucinogens may be significant. Drawing from a comprehensive analysis of preclinical behavior, neuroanatomy, and neurochemistry studies, this review builds rationale for this hypothesis, and also proposes a testable, neurobiological framework. 5-HT2C agonists work, in part, by modulating dopamine neuron activity in the ventral tegmental area-nucleus accumbens (NAc) reward pathway. We argue that activation of 5-HT2C receptors on NAc shell, GABAergic, medium spiny neurons inhibits potassium Kv1.x channels, thereby enhancing inhibitory activity via intrinsic mechanisms. Together with experiments that show that addictive drugs, such as cocaine, potentiate Kv1.x channels, thereby suppressing NAc shell GABAergic activity, this hypothesis provides a mechanism by which classic hallucinogen-mediated stimulation of 5-HT2C receptors could thwart addiction. It also provides a potential reason for the non-addictive nature of classic hallucinogens.

Keywords: 5-HT2C; Hallucinogens; Kv1; addiction; cocaine.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Addictive / metabolism
  • Cocaine / pharmacology
  • Hallucinogens / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Nucleus Accumbens / drug effects
  • Nucleus Accumbens / metabolism
  • Receptor, Serotonin, 5-HT2A / metabolism*
  • Receptor, Serotonin, 5-HT2C / metabolism*
  • Serotonin / metabolism*
  • Serotonin 5-HT2 Receptor Agonists / pharmacology
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / drug effects
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / metabolism


  • Hallucinogens
  • Receptor, Serotonin, 5-HT2A
  • Receptor, Serotonin, 5-HT2C
  • Serotonin 5-HT2 Receptor Agonists
  • Serotonin
  • Cocaine