Have you ever wondered how magic mushrooms affect the brain? These new connections they create don’t just make people trip, it’s also the reason that psilocybin is one of today’s most talked about drugs in certain medical circles.
You may have seen images mapping the typical human brain (left side). A map of a brain on psilocybin (right side), the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms, is vastly different.
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.
What does psilocybin do to 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. When you take psilocybin, your gut converts it into another chemical known as psilocybin. This binds to serotonin receptors, and experts think that is 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 a decrease in network activity in the default mode network, which leads to a loss of ego. This may be but why people often report, at high doses, a profound sense of unity, transcending beyond themselves.
Psilocybin connects regions of the brain that don’t normally interface
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. Think of it like an orchestra. Normally, the brain has different musical groups that each play independently; a sextet there, a quartet there. One is playing jazz, another classical, and several other ones. But once psilocybin enters, it’s like you suddenly have a conductor. So there is this communication between areas that are normally compartmentalized. 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. Dissolving your ego can be profoundly healing, and there’s actually an increasing amount of research to prove it. Two studies published in 2016 showed researchers giving cancer patients with depression, a large dose of psilocybin. Even six months later, at least 80% of them showed significant decreases in depressed mood.
Psilocybin and addiction
Additionally, research on addiction is equally promising. In a study led by Johnson, 15 people volunteered to use psilocybin to quit smoking. 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 1 Drug in the USA and Canada, a category reserved for compounds that have no currently accepted medical use, and a high potential for abuse.
The risks of psilocybin mushrooms
Now, to be fair, taking magic mushrooms recreationally does come with some risks. A dramatic example would be driving under the influence of psilocybin, or using it in a way that interferes with your job, family relations, or schoolwork. But as far as scientists know, long term use doesn’t damage the brain in the way that other drugs can. 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 it needed medical emergency treatment. Compared to 0.9% for ecstasy, and 1.3% for alcohol. This is why some states across the country have campaigned to decriminalize psilocybin, including Denver, which in May of 2019 became the first ever to succeed. We hope that Canada will be close behind! Now that you know how magic mushrooms affect the brain, would you be likely to share this information with friends or family? Remember, magic mushrooms are a potent medicine and should always be approached with caution.