Magic of the mushroom

Two recent studies have revealed that ‘magic mushrooms’ may be useful in the treatment of anxiety and depression, writes Emily Longworth.

While many psychedelic drugs have earned a bad reputation in the public eye, there has been a resurgence of their use in alternative therapies in the last decade. The infamous hallucinogenic fungi Psilocybe, commonly known as ‘magic mushrooms’, has been the focus of two studies published in the past month that analysed brain activity in users of the drug, as well as its potential for therapeutic application.A research team in Imperial College London investigated the brain’s response to the drug from both neurological and psychological perspectives. By mapping brain activity in a group of healthy volunteers with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they were experiencing the psychedelic state brought on by ingesting magic mushrooms, they illustrated the correlation between changes in consciousness and decreased activity in central hub regions of the brain.The active compound psilocybin, which is present in these mushrooms, is responsible for its hallucinogenic effects, such as flashbacks and vivid relivings of past experiences. It is not entirely understood how psilocybin causes such a reaction in users, even though it has been shown to activate receptors of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that is associated with happiness) in the brain. It is this reaction that interests researchers in psychoanalytical therapies.By demonstrating how a ‘power-down’ of central hub activity in the brain was a confirmed response of the nervous system to psilocybin, the research team disproved the common misconception that taking magic mushrooms ‘expands the mind’ or increases brain connectivity. Areas that would usually have important synchronous activity showed a large decline in interactivity, which contradicts many drug-user’s philosophy that magic mushrooms will free the mind and activate heightened brain consciousness. The opposite, in fact, is true.It is now proposed that the dream-like state of recollection induced by magic mushrooms is owed to this reduction in brain activity and connectivity. The intensity of the drug’s effects in patients corresponded to a large decrease in functional connectivity between the main areas of the brain. The largest areas of decreased activity were the prefrontal cortex and the anterior and posterior cingulate cortices. It is thought that by reducing synchronisation between these connector hubs, psilocybin impedes the flow of information through the brain, and this accounts for the hallucinations and the state of ‘unconstrained cognition’ experienced by users of magic mushrooms.The second paper published by the research team analysed the implications of reduced brain activity for psychedelic drug-assisted therapies. Evidence that psilocybin enhances autobiographical recollection attests to its potential use in psychotherapy as a tool to reverse negative cognitive behaviour.Positive memory cues were used to cause visual recollections in volunteers, who had been asked prior to the study to compile a collection of personal memories of specific life events, (such as standing at the alter on their wedding day). Whilst being monitored by fMRI scanning, the memory cues were shown to volunteers who had taken psilocybin, and they subsequently prompted the activation of sensory and visual regions of the brain, which remained inactive in volunteers on the placebo dose.This switch in sensory function from a pattern of deactivation under placebo to activation under psilocybin is crucial, and may explain why memories can be felt as especially vivid or ‘real’ when under the influence of psychedelics.The patient feedback from the study corresponded to the technical results from the fMRI scans. Memories were rated as more “vivid, visual, emotional and positive” under psilocybin than placebo. Patients on psilocybin reported that they felt like they were more attached to the images they saw than they otherwise would be, referring to heightened emotional engagement.Although the patient report is a subjective measure of the body’s response to the drug, it correlates strongly to the evidence obtained from the fMRI scanning, and it gives scientists and medical professionals a greater understanding of how the sensory regions of the brain affect our cognition and perception.Essentially, the practical implications of this study show the potential that psilocybin has to reverse negative thought patterns in patients suffering from depression or anxiety. Depression involves hyperactivity in the prefrontal cortex, leading to the pessimistic outlook characteristic of the condition, so deactivation of the prefrontal cortex region could alleviate those symptoms. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in America openly supports the use of psilocybin to treat anxiety in patients of life-threatening illnesses, in addition to applied therapeutic uses of cannabis, LSD and MDMA. Some past studies support this use of psilocybin, reporting mood improvements in cancer patients who suffer from anxiety.However, not all studies in the area have produced the same successful set of results, so there remains a strong element of doubt in the minds of many psychotherapists over the possibility of such alternative treatments. One of the main limitations of this treatment lies in trying to ensure that any hallucinogenic experiences caused are positive ones; most ‘bad trips’ reported on magic mushrooms are often linked to painful or conflict-laden memories being re-experienced. For the drug to work in relieving anxiety and depression effectively, the entire hallucination experience must be positive.