Disclaimer: I am in no way encouraging substance-use, but we all know that CC students are a curious group of kids, restrained by few laws. Curiosity is a wonderful thing; it led to the discovery of the Americas, the theory of evolution, and modern medicine. However, curiosity also killed the cat. I am presenting the current scientific facts about pharmacological activities so you can make an informed decision before you conduct a single-subject experiment on your personal neurochemistry.
Hallucinogens have been used by various cultures in religious and ritualistic contexts for millennia. Evidence of the use of psilocybin mushrooms, commonly referred to as “magic” mushrooms, can be seen in pottery depictions from central America dating back to 500 BC.
The Western world was first introduced to mushrooms when the Spanish made contact with the Aztecs and Mayans, who were actively practicing mushroom worship. It wasn’t until 1957 that Westerners studied magic mushrooms, and in that time, we have learned relatively little about the specific ways in which they work in the brain.
Magic mushrooms are often taken in order to induce a psychedelic state, commonly referred to as a trip. Users report feelings of euphoria and increased creativity and insight, which can lead to profound spiritual experience. They also report increased emotionality and anxiety, which can often lead to the dreaded “bad trip”. Gastrointestinal distress is also reported as a common side effect.
The most commonly used mushrooms are psilocybe mushrooms. They contain two compounds of interest, psilocybin and psilocin. While it is commonly believed that psilocybin is what produces psychoactive effects, it is thought to be unable to pass through the blood brain barrier. When mushrooms are ingested, the liver breaks psilocybin into psilocin. Psilocin can pass through the blood brain barrier because it is smaller than psilocybin.
Once the psilocin has passed through the blood brain barrier, it is thought to target a specific type of serotonin receptor known as 5HT2a. Serotonin is most often associated with depression, a condition characterized by a general decrease in the chemical.
However, serotonin plays a bigger part in the brain than just mood regulation. It also modulates appetite, helps to regulate pain, and facilitates digestion. The 5HT2a receptor has been discovered to produce hallucinogenic effects when stimulated; this is also the receptor that LSD binds to. 5HT2a receptors are found throughout the neocortex, but they are particularly prevalent in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that regulates decision-making and planning.
One study noted that mushrooms caused decreased activity throughout the cortex and especially in the prefrontal cortex. This is consistent with user reports of elevation in mood and improved outlook on life. This fits with the tendency of people with depression to have hyperactive prefrontal cortices.
There is an increasing body of research that indicates that psilocybin mushrooms may have multiple medicinal uses. Numerous case studies have indicated that psilocin may terminate cluster headaches, an intensely painful condition that has no cure. Additionally, it is thought that mushrooms can be used in addition with traditional psychotherapy to increase positive outcomes.
Currently, studies conducted at Johns Hopkins, NYU, and UCLA use magic mushrooms as a part of end-of-life therapy for terminally ill cancer patients. The patients are first enrolled in extensive psychotherapy and are then given psilocybin as part of a guided “trip.” Patients have reported great alleviation of end-of-life anxiety after their psychedelic experience.
While it seems that mushrooms are beginning to have place in medicine, it is important to note that recreational use can often have negative unintended effects. While a “good” trip can be seen to produce positive and even therapeutic results, a “bad” trip can produce an equally impactful negative result. It is important to remember that taking psychedelics can render the user incredibly vulnerable to suggestion. Therefore a “bad” trip might leave the user with lasting anxiety and fear.
There are no known fatalities that have been directly correlated with psilocybe mushrooms. However other mushrooms that also have psychedelic effects, such as amanita muscaria, can be highly toxic. There is always an inherent risk in ingesting a substance whose identity is virtually unknown, so be careful wherever your decisions may lead you.
Elle Beckett, Staff Writer