January 23rd, 2012
03:30 PM ET
Magic mushrooms may be therapeutic
Rave-goers and visitors to Amsterdam before December 2008 may be intimately familiar with magic mushrooms, but there's little scientific knowledge on what happens to the brain while tripping.
Now it appears that more research is warranted. A growing number of studies suggested that perhaps the mushrooms' key ingredient could work magic for certain mental disorders.
New research in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds light on why one of the mushrooms' hallucinogenic chemical compounds, psilocybin, may hold promise for the treatment of depression. Scientists explored the effect of psilocybin on the brain, documenting the neural basis behind the altered state of consciousness that people have reported after using magic mushrooms.
"We have found that these drugs turn off the parts of the brain that integrate sensations – seeing, hearing, feeling – with thinking," said David Nutt, co-author of the study and researcher at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom.
Nutt is also Britain's former chief drug adviser, who has published controversial papers about the relative harms of various drugs. He was asked to leave his government position in 2009 because "he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy," according to a letter in the Guardian from a member of the British Parliament.
Psilocybin is illegal in the United States and considered a Schedule 1 drug, along with heroin and LSD. Schedule 1 drugs "have a high potential for abuse and serve no legitimate medical purpose in the United States," according to the Department of Justice.
But in the early stages of research on psilocybin, there's been a bunch of good news for its medicinal potential: psilocybin has shown to be helpful for terminally ill cancer patients dealing with anxiety, and preliminary studies on depression are also promising.
Nutt's study is also preliminary and small, with only 30 participants. His group used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at how the brain responds to psilocybin, from normal waking consciousness to a psychedelic state.
The study found that the more psilocybin shuts off the brain, the greater the feeling of being in an altered state of consciousness, he said. It's not the same as dreaming, because you're fully conscious and aware, he said.
The medial prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain in the middle, appears to be crucial - it determines how you think, feel and behave. Damage to it produces profound changes in personality, and so if you switch it off, your sense of self becomes fragmented, Nutt said. That's what happens when psilocybin decreases activity in it.
"Some people say they become one with the universe," he said. "It's that sort of transcendental experience."
Another brain region that psilocybin affects is the anterior cingulate cortex, which is over-active in depression, Nutt said. Some patients with severe depression that cannot be treated with pharmaceuticals receive deep brain stimulation, a technique of surgically implanting a device that delivers electrical impulses directed at decreasing activity in that brain region. Psilocybin could be a cheaper option, Nutt said.
It's counterintuitive that a hallucinogenic drug would de-activate rather than stimulate key brain regions, although other studies have shown a mix of results regarding psilocybin turning brain areas on and off, said Roland Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Griffiths was not involved in Nutt's study, but has also researched the effects of psilocybin.
Even if this drug gets approved some day, don't expect to be able to pick up a prescription for psilocybin at your local pharmacy, Griffiths cautioned. There's too much potential for abuse, he said.
Although scientists have found many positive effects of psilocybin in experimental trials, there are of course potential dangers. Some people have frightening experiences while on psilocybin. The fear and anxiety responses of magic mushrooms can be so great that, when taken casually in a non-medical setting, people can cause harm to themselves or others. They may jump out a window or run into traffic because of a panic reaction.
The drug would have to be administered in a controlled setting in a hospital, if found in further research to be an effective and safe therapy for certain mental illnesses, Griffiths said. It would not be appropriate for people who already have psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, since psilocybin can exacerbate those symptoms.
But among healthy volunteers, Griffiths and others have found that people may have long-lasting positive effects from the vivid memories of being on psilocybin (in a controlled, experimental setting). People report mystical experiences of feeling the "interconnectedness of all things," which can be life-changing.
"People claim to have an enhanced sense of self, more emotional balance, they're more compassionate, they're more sensitive to the needs of others," he said. "They have more well-being and less depression, but they're not 'high' in any conventional sense. They feel like their perceptual set has shifted."
The memories of the psilocybin experience, and positive outcomes that users attribute toward them, can last as much as 25 years, research has shown.
Still, there's just not enough known yet about the long-term safety of psilocybin to say whether it could also do damage to the brain, Griffiths said.
"There’d have to be changes in the brain for these long-lasting memories and attributions to occur," Griffiths said. "We don’t know how those changes occur, and why."
About this blog
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.
Good information. Lucky me I came across your website by chance (stumbleupon). I've saved as a favorite for later!
An intriguing discussion is definitely worth comment. I think that you need to publish more on this issue, it may not be a taboo matter but generally folks don't talk about these issues. To the next! Cheers!!
Hi friends, its impressive article on the topic of teachingand completely defined, keep it up all the time.
I'm more than happy to discover this page. I wanted to thank you for ones time just for this fantastic read!! I definitely liked every little bit of it and i also have you book marked to see new things in your web site.
Having read this I believed it was extremely enlightening. I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this content together. I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worthwhile!
My brother suggested I might like this website.
He was entirely right. This post truly made my day.
You can not imagine just how much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!
You are so cool! I do not believe I've truly read through a single thing like this before. So great to discover somebody with some original thoughts on this subject matter. Really.. many thanks for starting this up. This web site is one thing that is required on the web, someone with a bit of originality!
Pretty! This was an extremely wonderful post. Many thanks for providing this information.
Great blog you have here.. It’s hard to find good quality writing like yours these days. I honestly appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!
I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Very well written!
Hello! I just want to give you a huge thumbs up for the excellent information you have right here on this post. I will be coming back to your website for more soon.
Great site you have here.. It’s difficult to find high-quality writing like yours these days. I honestly appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!
After I originally commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on every time a comment is added I receive 4 emails with the exact same comment. There has to be a way you are able to remove me from that service? Appreciate it!
Good day! I just want to offer you a huge thumbs up for your excellent information you have got here on this post. I am returning to your site for more soon.
This is a topic which is close to my heart... Take care! Exactly where are your contact details though?
This is really interesting, You're a very skilled blogger.
I've joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your fantastic post.
Also, I have shared your web site in my social networks!
This site truly has all the information and facts I needed about this subject and didn’t know who to ask.
Very good article. I am going through some of these issues as well..
Can I just say what a relief to discover someone that genuinely understands what they're discussing on the web. You actually realize how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More people must check this out and understand this side of your story. I can't believe you are not more popular given that you surely possess the gift.
A great read. I'll definitely be back.
best i have ever seen!Hello, always i used to check webpage posts here early in the daylight, for the reason that i love to gain knowledge of more and more.
I like looking through a post that can make men and women think.
Also, many thanks for allowing me to comment!
Pretty! This has been an extremely wonderful article. Thank you for providing this info.
After looking at a handful of the blog posts on your site, I honestly appreciate your technique of writing a blog. I saved as a favorite it to my bookmark webpage list and will be checking back in the near future. Take a look at my web site as well and let me know how you feel.
Very nice post. I absolutely appreciate this site. Thanks!
I was able to find good information from your blog posts.
I’m impressed, I have to admit. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you've hit the nail on the head. The issue is something not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy I came across this during my search for something regarding this.
This excellent website truly has all the information I wanted concerning this subject and didn’t know who to ask.
Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon every day. It will always be exciting to read through articles from other authors and practice a little something from their web sites.
Good article. I am going through many of these issues as well..
You're so awesome! I do not suppose I've truly read a single thing like that before. So great to find someone with original thoughts on this issue. Seriously.. thank you for starting this up. This site is one thing that's needed on the web, someone with some originality!
Can I simply just say what a relief to discover somebody that really knows what they're discussing online. You actually know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More and more people really need to check this out and understand this side of your story. It's surprising you are not more popular given that you surely have the gift.
An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a friend who has been conducting a little homework on this. And he actually ordered me dinner because I discovered it for him... lol. So let me reword this.... Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending the time to discuss this matter here on your website.