The term psychedelic, or “magic” mushrooms, includes about 200 species of fungi that contain certain compounds — most often psilocybin and/or psilocin — known to cause psychoactive, hallucinatory effects in users like increased introspection, dream-like states, illusions, synesthesia, and altered perceptions of time and space.
Though the use of psychedelic mushrooms and other consciousness altering substances has been around for millennia, these mushrooms and their psychedelic compounds have been prohibited in the United States and in most nations around the world for the past 50 years.
Yet recent research into new and improved treatments for debilitating and increasingly common mental health diseases like major depressive disorder (MDD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorder, and substance abuse/addiction have begun to point toward a fresh fungal frontier: the immense potential of psychedelic mushrooms to treat mental disease.
Psychedelic Science Paves the Way
In late 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration designated psilocybin-based therapy for MDD as a breakthrough therapy, institutionally establishing the FDA’s commitment to promoting a fast, efficient development and approval program for psilocybin therapy in the treatment of MDD.
In large part, research conducted by doctors and psychologists like those at the John Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research and the Imperial College London Centre for Psychedelic Research are to thank for this development. But psilocybin’s ability to help people overcome MDD is only the most discussed therapeutic application of this wonderful compound.
For example, recent small-scale studies have also demonstrated the potential efficacy of psilocybin therapy — often combined with psychotherapy sessions after the psilocybin experience — in treating anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, suicidal thoughts, and in breaking addiction to alcohol and tobacco. It’s believed that much of psilocybin’s therapeutic benefits come from its ability to effectively reset the activity of key brain circuits or channels sometimes referred to as the brain’s “default mode network.”
In essence, psilocybin helps the brain create novel neural pathways while circumventing those pesky well-trodden neural highways characteristic of addictive, compulsive, and depressive thoughts and actions. The effect is that new ways of thinking, relating, and perceiving are quickly and lastingly created and old pathways are swiftly broken.
Research at Imperial College utilizing brain-imaging technology backs up this theory, with functional MRI imaging showing reduced blood flow in areas of the brain like the amygdala, a region known to be involved in processing emotions, stress, and fear, during and after a psilocybin experience.
“These findings provide a new window into what happens in the brains of people after they have ‘come down’ from a psychedelic, where an initial disintegration of brain networks during the drug ‘trip’ is followed by a re-integration afterwards,” said Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, lead researcher of psychedelic research at Imperial College, upon publication of a study on psilocybin and MDD.
“Based on what we know from various brain imaging studies with psychedelics, as well as taking heed of what people say about their experiences, it may be that psychedelics do indeed ‘reset’ the brain networks associated with depression, effectively enabling them to be lifted from the depressed state.”
In the wake of this study and others, a rash of new research is currently underway, promising further investigation, clarity, and promise in the field of psilocybin-based therapy in treating mental health maladies.