We often hear about the therapeutic power of cannabis, but what about psychedelics? Food author Eugenia Bone investigated that question after experimenting with psilocybin, or “magic” mushrooms herself. In an op-ed for the New York Times, she reviews some of the recent scientific literature on mushrooms’ ability to treat depression and other psychological disorders. Though anecdotal stories of people experiencing a long-term boost in mental health after a meaningful mushroom trip have been around for ages, it’s only recently that mushrooms have received much focus from the broader scientific community.
A study published in the Royal Society Interface examined the brains of 15 healthy subjects given psilocybin intravenously. The results show that the brain on psilocybin has more inter-regional connections. Essentially, areas of the brain that don’t generally “talk” to each other start exchanging neural impulses. These findings help explain some of the sensory phenomena often experienced by people who eat psilocybin mushrooms, such as seeing sounds or hearing colors. The neural cross-chatter is loudest in the cortex, the part of the brain most associated with consciousness.
While it’s unclear if these new brain connections persist in any significant way, a journey with mushrooms may help people move away from detrimental thought patterns characteristic of depression. Depressed people are often stuck in a mental rut, replaying the same negative scenes and ideas in their minds again and again. By getting certain neural nodes to open up new connections, mushrooms can provide a fresh perspective from within.
Indeed, psilocybin seems to specialize in breaking unhelpful habits of the mind. A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry on psilocybin and memory concluded:
“Evidence that psilocybin enhances autobiographical recollection implies that it may be useful in psychotherapy either as a tool to facilitate the recall of salient memories or to reverse negative cognitive biases.”
Previous studies have found that depressed people often remember negative memories more vividly than neutral or positive ones. This study shows that mushrooms can help “wake up” more positive memories, improving people’s overall concept of themselves and their lives.
Bone goes on to cite studies in which psilocybin relieved obsessive compulsive symptoms, treated cluster headaches (severe headaches that occur on one side of the head and may accompany other symptoms), and eliminate conditioned fear responses in mice, which has implications for phobias and PTSD. In some cases, the subjects were given low doses of psilocybin and likely did not experience much or any subjective “tripping”experience.
The research is promising, but psilocybin mushrooms are worthy of much more research. The potential benefits to sufferers of a range of mental maladies are enormous. Studies in the United States are limited, however, because of psilocybin’s status as an illegal Schedule I substance.
Bone ends her editorial with a call to give the medicine a more sensible classification:
“Rescheduling psilocybin won’t make it legal; it will make it easier for research to be conducted, leading to more scientists exploring its potential, while reducing investor concern and allowing for compassionate use provisions.”
Policy on psilocybin has come from fear and (sometimes willful) misunderstanding. It’s time for the Drug Enforcement Agency to acknowledge psilocybin’s innocuousness in controlled doses and incredible potential as a medicine.