This is the map of a typical human brain, and this is the map of a brain on psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms. All those new connections you can see don’t just make people trip. They’re also the reason that psilocybin is one of today’s most talked-about drugs in certain medical circles.
Worldwide, more than 180 species of mushrooms produce psilocybin, likely as a defense strategy. Scientists believe that psilocybin may dampen the appetite of predatory insects like ants so that they feel full long before eating their way through the entire mushroom. Humans, on the other hand, well, they trip.
See How It Works In The Brain
Psilocybin is a so-called classic psychedelic, so it’s in the same category as drugs like LSD and works in the brain in basically the same way.
When you take psilocybin, your gut converts it into another chemical, known as psilocin, which binds to serotonin receptors called 2A, and experts think that’s what triggers what they call neuronal avalanching. It’s essentially a domino effect of different changes in the brain. You’ve got increased activity in the visual cortex, which leads to changes in your perception, and then decreased network activity in the default mode network, which leads to a loss of ego.
And that may be why people often report at high doses a profound sense of unity, transcending beyond themselves.
But perhaps most importantly, psilocybin increases connectivity among different regions of the brain.
Because of that receptor activation, there is a profound change in the way that different areas of the brain synchronize with each other.
Compare It With An Orchestra
Think of it like an orchestra. Normally, the brain has different musical groups that each play independently. A sextet there, here’s a quartet there. This one’s playing jazz. This one’s classical, and a number of other ones.
But once psilocybin enters, it’s like you suddenly have a conductor.
So there is this communication between areas that are normally kind of compartmentalized and doing their own thing.
Scientists believe that it’s a combination of these effects that make psilocybin so useful for combating depression and addiction. When new areas in the brain start talking to each other, for example, you might have new insights into old problems. And that’s why some experts describe tripping as a condensed version of talk therapy. And then dissolving your ego, And there’s actually an increasing amount of research to prove it. In two studies published in 2016, researchers gave cancer patients with depression a large dose of psilocybin, and even six months later, at least 80% of them showed significant decreases in depressed mood.
How It Effects Few Kicked Habits
And research on addiction is equally promising. In a study led by Johnson, 15 volunteers took psilocybin to quit smoking, and after six months, 80% of them had kicked the habit, compared to a rate of about 35% for the drug varenicline, which is widely considered the best smoking-cessation drug out there. Yet despite these results, psilocybin is still listed as a Schedule I drug, a category reserved for compounds that have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Now, taking magic mushrooms recreationally does come with some risks.
But as far as scientists know, long-term use doesn’t damage the brain in the way that other drugs can, and according to at least one study, it’s actually the safest drug out there. In 2018, for example, just 0.3% of people who reported taking them needed medical emergency treatment, compared to 0.9% for ecstasy and 1.3% for alcohol.
Taken altogether, that’s why some states across the country have campaigned to decriminalize psilocybin, including Denver, which, in May of 2019, became the first ever to succeed.