Cultures throughout the world have used plants and fungi with psychedelic properties for millennia to produce altered states of mind. More than just temporarily transforming the lens through which one sees the world, these drugs were considered sacred, because those who took them frequently had mystical or religious experiences.
To this day, many individuals who use psychedelic drugs feel they grant a certain kind of perspicacity, and the number of people who are using psychedelics appears to be growing. Several clinical trials are now examining the effects of these drugs, while some cities and states are considering decriminalizing “magic mushrooms” that contain the psychotropic compound psilocybin.
While under the influence of the drug, users typically experience changes in mood and perception, a sense of oceanic boundlessness, radically altered reasoning and thinking, and auditory and visual hallucinations. Once the acute effects of the drug subside, however, many people feel as though they have a heightened sense of empathy and self-awareness, which is why these drugs have generated much interest from many medical researchers.
While this is not an endorsement by any means—since far more research needs to be conducted before medical science can definitively say these drugs are effective—preliminary clinical trials indicate that these aftereffects may have therapeutic benefits, especially for those who are confronting the limits of their mortality.
Perhaps some of the most promising research into psychedelics examines how these drugs affect those who are in the latter stages of a terminal disease and experiencing existential distress due to their impending death. Several studies have shown that psychedelics such as psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”) are effective at producing antidepressant and anxiolytic effects by letting these individuals come to terms with their own mortality.
Not only are these findings relatively new, but they are also supported by strong data sets. This is important because many Western physicians and medical researchers would have looked askance at such claims about psilocybin had the evidence not been so strong.
For decades, even the suggestion that psilocybin and other psychedelics possessed therapeutic potential was often seen as an endorsement of not only the drugs themselves but the counterculture of the 1960s. And while many researchers continue to associate the use of psychedelics like psilocybin with this counterculture, the stigmas are beginning to subside as more research is published that strongly indicates that psilocybin does have therapeutic potentials.
Cultural stigmas surrounding the use of drugs like psilocybin are not the only obstacles to research. There are also legal restraints. At this time, psilocybin is still considered a Schedule 1 drug by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means there are significant regulatory barriers preventing researchers from obtaining and testing the compound.
The good news, however, is that the FDA has designated psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy on two separate occasions, most recently for the treatment of a major depressive disorder. Breakthrough therapy designation, according to the FDA, “is intended to expedite the development and review of drugs for serious or life-threatening conditions.”
How Does Psilocybin Affect the Brain?
Psilocybin is a naturally occurring tryptamine compound found in at least 100 species of mushroom. When consumed orally, which is the typical route of administration, psilocybin is converted into psilocin through hepatic metabolism. Psilocin, not psilocybin, appears to be the pharmacologically active substance responsible for the psychotropic effects of “magic mushrooms.”