Magic Mushrooms for Mental Health?
The search for effective ways to treat depression and other mental health conditions is expanding beyond typical pharmaceuticals. In particular, psychedelics are making waves as potential therapies for psychiatric disorders.
The hallucinogen ketamine made headline news in 2019 when it earned FDA approval as new drug therapy for depression. Another hallucinogen, psilocybin (the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms), was recently decriminalized in Denver and has also been gaining favor as a new approach for treatment-resistant depression and other mental health conditions.
But is taking a psychedelic trip on magic mushrooms safe for people with psychiatric issues?
What is Psilocybin?
Psilocybin is a natural hallucinogen that distorts perception and can cause profound visual and auditory hallucinations. People can have very different experiences form ingesting magic mushrooms.
Psychedelic effects can include:
- Seeing colors more vividly
- Feeling like time has slowed down
- Thinking unusual thoughts
- Seeing objects that appear to be moving
- Feelings of euphoria
Not everybody has such a magical experience. Some people have decidedly unpleasant reactions to the substance, including:
- Panic attacks
- Feelings of depression
These positive or negative effects emerge about a half-hour after ingesting the substance and can last approximately 4-6 hours.
History of Psilocybin
People have been using psychoactive mushrooms for medicinal and religious purposes for thousands of years. In the 1950s, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, the man who gained notoriety for discovering LSD, synthesized the substance. This opened the door to clinical research using the drug as a potential therapy for a variety of psychiatric issues, including schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders (ASD), substance abuse, obsessive compulsive disorder, and depression.
In 1970, the U.S. designated it as a Schedule I drug of the Controlled Substances Act, effectively criminalizing it and indicating that it has a high risk of abuse. This put an end to most clinical research until it resurfaced more recently.
How Do Magic Mushrooms Affect the Brain?
Scientists have long believed that psilocybin works by binding to serotonin receptors in the brain. This prevents the reuptake of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s involved with mood control, shifting attention, and cognitive flexibility. Antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work in the same way to enhance serotonin.
A 2012 brain imaging study found that psilocybin also decreases brain activity in certain areas of the brain, including the thalamus, which is involved in the transfer of information.
“’ Knocking out’ these key hubs with psilocybin appears to allow information to travel more freely in the brain, probably explaining why people’s imaginations become more vivid and animated and the world is experienced as unusual,” study author Robin Carhart-Harris told LiveScience.
Psilocybin as a Psychiatric Treatment
In spite of the growing body of research, a 2018 review of the existing scientific evidence claims our understanding of psilocybin’s effects is still in its infancy and suggests caution. “Progress needs to be made in explicitly understanding the cognitive and neural mechanistic process by which psilocybin works,” the authors say.
In addition, scientists have yet to determine if the use of psilocybin could have detrimental effects in the long run. We know that some pharmaceuticals prescribed to treat mental health issues can be harmful to the brain. For example, brain SPECT imaging studies have shown that some anti-anxiety drugs, such as benzodiazepines, have negative impacts on blood flow and activity in the brain.
More research on psilocybin is needed to know the lasting impacts on the brain and to establish whether it is safe on a long-term basis.
At Amen Clinics, we use brain SPECT imaging, which can reveal exposure to toxins that are negatively impacting the brain. Our brain imaging work has shown that some medications—such as benzodiazepines often prescribed for anxiety, as well as chemotherapy— have a harmful effect on the brain. We have helped many people overcome treatment-resistant depression using the least toxic, most effective therapies.
To learn more or to schedule your comprehensive evaluation, please visit us online or call 888-288-9834.