Magic mushrooms – medicinal as well as mystical?

Maybe when you think of magic mushrooms, you may picture a stereotypical scene consisting of a haggle of “flower-power” hippies sat round a camp fire, away with the fairies. What is typically thought of as a bit of fun for the more adventurous and promiscuous in society, is now being seriously studied for the treatment of crippling mental health disorders. The full potential of the mind-boggling power of these naturally occurring fungi to increase spirituality, connectivity, creativity and to reinstate a sense of purpose and meaning is beginning to be realized and may shortly be unleashed as a legal and viable therapy for a monopoly of different disorders. 

Prehistoric cave paintings depicting magic mushrooms at Salva Pascuala, Spain. Credit: Juan Francisco Ruiz López

Humankind across the world have co-evolved with magic mushrooms, with prehistoric cave paintings depicting these fabulous fungi dated back to over 10,000 years ago in North Africa, but also evidence of their use in ancient tribes of Spain, South America and Central America. Despite this extensive history, the civilized Western world only was introduced to mushrooms in 1957, when Life magazine published an article, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom”, an enrapturing depiction of the experience of Robert Wasson had when participating in a spiritual ritual traditional of the Mazatec people, the indigenous people of Mexico. 

Magic mushrooms, alongside other compounds such as LSD were grouped into a new category of drugs, those that were “mind-manifesting”. In 1956, these were named “psychedelics” by grouping the two Greek words “psyche” (mind or soul) and “delos” (to manifest). The active component of magic mushrooms, a substance known as psilocybin was identified by Albert Hoffmann, the same man who had previously described the psychoactive properties of LSD. The psychedelics all function by acting at receptors in the brain that are activated by the “happy chemical” – serotonin.  The powerful ability of psychedelics to refashion states of consciousness and to enhance the sensation of meaning was unlike the effects of any other drug previously described in modern medicine. Scientists and doctors, alike, were quick to realize their therapeutic potential for mental health disorders and “psychoactive therapy” was commonplace the 1960s, offering hope to tens of thousands of patients. 

Women protesting the Vietnam War, Washington DC, 1968. Credit: AP/State Department

If the research that began in the 1960s was permitted to bloom, who knows where we would be now in the field of psychedelics as medicines? However, President Nixon had other ideas. Not only were psychedelics contributing to the rising anti-Vietnam war movement, they were instrumental in women’s rights, anti-racism and anti-violence movements. Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, and psychedelics loaded into the barrel of Schedule I drugs, along with amphetamines, opioids and narcotics. The irrational, unjust and discriminating “War of Drugs” began. As Ehrlichman, Nixon’s public health policy adviser stated:

President Nixon, 1972

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Mental health statistics, House of Commons, 2014

Consequently, and maybe devastatingly for the prognosis of those suffering with mental health disorders, all research and medicinal use of psychedelics was put on hold for 30 years. In the meantime, mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, poised an ever-increasing burden on society. Rates escalated consistently to reach current levels; 1 in 4 people suffering with a mental health disorder at some point in their lives. SSRIs remain the first-line drugs, but they are ineffective, with only 40% of those suffering with major depressive episodes ever achieving remission from their symptoms, as well as possessing strong side effects and a prolonged time-lapse before improvements are made. It is obvious that alternative therapies must be sort after.

Credit: OceanBreezeRecovery.org

Luckily, research into psychedelics began to be rekindled in the late 1990s and have been shown to be effective, when used in clinics alongside counselling, to treat addictions, OCD and anxieties commonly observed in critically ill cancer patients. Recent trials, at Imperial College have demonstrated strong evidence to suggest the utility of just a single dose to treat patients suffering with major depression, that had previously been untreatable. Although these are very primitive studies, all but one of the participants had a significantly reduced depression score 5 weeks after the single administration. 

But how does psilocybin elicit such anti-depressive effects? 

The ability of psilocybin, when administered in this supportive clinical setting, to enhance a sense of purpose and to elicit a spiritually significant experience is staggering, with up to 86% of patients describing it as one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives in a magnitude of studies. This enhancement of consciousness, addition of multiple mystical dimensions and amplification of perception contrasts drastically with the way that traditional anti-depressants seem to flatten the experience of the world, masking the underlying pain. Could psilocybin be a way of forcing patients to come face-to-face with their inner demons and the root of the pain, allowing them to target the underlying problem, rather than hiding it behind a fog which will inevitably clear one day? This was achieved by just a single dose – and the lasting enlightening effects have been described as an “after-glow”. 

The Imperial college research group also performed brain imaging, using fMRI scanners, which are able to identify the regions of the brain which are most active, by looking at the blood flow. They observed drastic differences after treatment with psilocybin in many regions of the brain. For example, the amygdala. The amygdala is sometimes termed the emotion centre of the brain, as a reflection of how its activation is involved in sensations of intense emotion, such as stress responses, fear and anxiety. The amygdala is commonly over-activated in depressive patients but its chronic high activity was significantly decreased after pscilocybin treatments. Maybe this is the start of an era where we can draw the dots between the seemingly separate worlds of spirituality and science. 

The effects of a single dose pf pscilocibin on blood flow to brain regions – does this link to the intensity of the experience? Credit: Robin Carhart-Harris et al. 2017

But what about the use of pscilocibin for those who do not suffer mental health disorders? 

Modern day society is a world in which we do not struggle to survive as we are constantly comfortable, fed and watered. The apparent ease of our lives is not reflected by a matched ease in our brains, however. We consistently set ourselves unachievable goals, strive to meet societal and live in an increasingly socially isolated fashion. The ever-dwindling belief in spiritual entities contributes to the lack of true meaning in our lives we all sometimes feel. Microdosing: that is, taking fractions of the dose required for hallucinations, has been shown to increase creativity, empathy and sense of purpose in healthy individuals, reducing self-criticism and focusing the mind on the amazing external inputs we receive on a day to day basis, but now all take for granted. Are you ever amazed by the absolute raw excitement and anticipation young children have when encountering the world? We lose this as we mature into adults, but maybe microdosing can bring back some of the true child-like joy and appreciation of the world around us. 

Due to the 30 year brake that was put on this research, these findings are still in their infancy. The diversity of the conditions that psilocybin has been used to improve is impressive. As it is ever-increasingly becoming clear that our mental and physical health is entwined in complex and intimate ways, this raises the question of whether psilocybin could offer hope for other health conditions, previously viewed as disparate from our brains, such as allergies or chronic pain? Maybe, or maybe not, but for mental health, a field of medicine in which the research seems to have been stagnant for so long, there may be a ray of hope on the horizon. 

References

Anderson, Thomas, et al. “Microdosing Psychedelics: Personality, mental health, and creativity differences in microdosers.” Psychopharmacology 236.2 (2019): 731-740.

Carhart-Harris, Robin L., et al. “Psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression: fMRI-measured brain mechanisms.” Scientific reports 7.1 (2017): 13187.

Carhart-Harris, Robin L., and Guy M. Goodwin. “The therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs: past, present, and future.” Neuropsychopharmacology 42.11 (2017): 2105.

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