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Is there therapeutic magic in mushrooms?

Mushrooms – or to be precise, magic mushrooms, are receiving heightened interest in pharmaceutical circles, essentially as a consequence of the media stimulation from former British government drugs advisor Prof David Nutt, Imperial College, London.  Professor Nutt’s more recent research has focused on the potential benefits of Psilocybin, the primary active component of magic mushrooms, as an antidepressant.  He now claims that his research is being hampered as a consequence of what he considers to be ‘insane’ British drug regulations.   magic mushroom

The possession of Psilocybin is currently illegal and is categorised as a Class A drug in the UK.  However, the Home Office has responded saying that they have ‘no evidence to suggest that the current listing of psilocybin as a schedule one substance is a barrier to attracting funding for legitimate research.’  Professor Nutt’s unit has now obtained considerable grant funding to conduct a full evaluation of the potential beneficial effects of Psilocybin as an antidepressant, but he is totally unable to start the study because of the lack of availability of the chemical.

The hallucinatory effects of Psilocybin have long been embraced.  The Aztecs in Mexico were known to use the substance as an enhancer in their spiritual and religious gatherings.  Psilocybin is in fact a prodrug which, when absorbed by the body, is rapidly converted to Psilocin, which is the psychoactive molecule that stimulates the brain, producing effects similar to LSD and mescaline.  It should be pointed out that it does induce strong visual and mental hallucinations with potentially very serious consequences if taken with other drugs.  Adverse reactions including nausea and panic attacks have also been recorded.

It is well known that, in patients with depression, there are specific regions of the brain which exhibit hyperactivity.  Preliminary results from Professor Nutt’s laboratory have indicated that, Psilocybin is effective in reducing or normalising this activity.  It is postulated that Psilocybin may directly stimulate serotonin levels which are associated with positive changes in mood.

Professor David Nutt isn’t a stranger to sensitive interactions with the UK Government.  He was removed from his position as official drug advisor following his assertion that ‘ecstasy and LSD were less harmful that alcohol.’

Additional reading:

“I took magic mushroom drug psilocybin in clinical trial”, Dr Michael Mosley

Functional Connectivity Measures After Psilocybin Inform a Novel Hypothesis of Early Psychosis.  Carhart-Harris RL, Leech R, Erritzoe D, Williams TM, Stone JM, Evans J, Sharp DJ, Feilding A, Wise RG, Nutt DJ.  Imperial College London, Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology, Division of Experimental Medicine, London, UK.

Psilocybin and Brain Function. Published October 21, 2012, Scott A. McGreal, MSc

Your Brain On Psilocybin Might Be Less Depressed, Nancy Shute, January 24, 2012