New Research Finds How Key Ingredient in “Magic Mushrooms” Affects Brain

New research helps explain how the active ingredient in the psychedelic drug “magic mushrooms,” psilocybin, affects the brain. The findings may help scientists develop treatments for depression, the researchers say.

Reuters reports that British scientists have conducted two small studies on psilocybin, which found it suppresses activity in areas of the brain that are also curbed with other antidepressant treatments. The scientists had expected psilocybin would increase activity in those brain areas.

“Psychedelics are thought of as ‘mind-expanding’ drugs, so it has commonly been assumed that they work by increasing brain activity, but surprisingly, we found that psilocybin actually caused activity to decrease in areas that have the densest connections with other areas,” David Nutt of the Imperial College London, who worked on two psilocybin studies, said in a news release. “We now know that deactivating these regions leads to a state in which the world is experienced as strange.”

In the first study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, psilocybin was infused into the blood of 30 study participants while their brains were scanned with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The scans found activity decreased in “hub” regions. Many participants said they felt the cogs being loosened and their sense of self being altered.

In the second study, which will be published in the British Journal of Psychiatry later this week, 10 volunteers took psilocybin and said their personal memories connected with strong positive emotions were more vivid after taking the drug.

Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, who worked on both studies, noted, “Previous studies have suggested that psilocybin can improve people’s sense of emotional well-being and even reduce depression in people with anxiety. The effects need to be investigated further, and ours was only a small study, but we are interested in exploring psilocybin’s potential as a therapeutic tool.”

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