Mushrooms could help in the treatment of depression

The naturally occurring psychedelic compound psilocybin is produced by more than two hundred species of mushrooms. When ingested, psilocybin is converted rapidly into the aromatic compound psilocin. This compound produces a range of mind-altering effects, including euphoria, hallucination, distorted time perception, nausea and panic attacks. Recent studies have looked into the effects of these psychedelics on the brain.

A study published in the December 2011 issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry details how scientists at Imperial College London analysed the brain activity of volunteers exposed to the active ingredient of magic mushrooms using an MRI scanner. Thirty healthy participants had psilocybin injected into their bloodstream whilst they were inside the MRI machines. The subsequent brain scans showed that activity was lowered in the hub regions of the brain, such as the thalamus as well as the anterior and posterior cingulate cortex. Commonly, psychedelics are thought of as ‘mind-expanding’ drugs, and so these results are rather surprising. Essentially, psilocybin decreases activity in areas of the brain which have the densest connection with other regions. David Nutt, senior author and professor at the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London explains: “These hubs constrain our experience of the world and keep it orderly. We now know that deactivating these regions leads to a state in which the world is experienced as strange.”

The results of the study are potentially helpful in the future treatment of depression, as areas specifically associated with depression, the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), also saw a decrease in activity. Hyperactivity in these two regions usually accompanies depressive episodes. The PCC is responsible for one’s self-consciousness and ego, and is linked strongly with personality issues. Neurologists believe that the mental state induced by exposure to the drug has great potential for enabling effective therapy combatting mental disorders. Further results from the study lend weight to this belief: when test subjects (on psilocybin) were asked to remember positive memories whilst they were in the MRI scanner, they reported more vivid recollections in comparison to the placebo group. Apparent increased access to positive memories and their enhanced vividness was found to have a positive correlation to the subjects’ wellbeing two weeks after exposure to psilocybin.

More studies are planned to explore psilocybin’s potential as a therapeutic opportunity, as the small size of the study and the fact that the participants had previous experience with psychedelic drugs means that the study’s findings are limited. Not enough is known about the compound yet for there to be significant impact on therapeutic procedures, and so Professor David Nutt warns, “We’re not saying go out there and eat magic mushrooms.”

It looks like self-medicating isn’t recommended. Damn.


Hilary Boden


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