Psilocybin is the name given to the chemical compound found in magic mushrooms. It is associated with causing users to experience a sensory overload of saturated colours and patterns, or as many people know it a ‘trip’. Some of you may have experimented with mushrooms before, maybe for recreational purposes, but these fungi are now seriously being considered by some as a potential treatment for major psychiatric disorders and for other individuals they are a tool to boost happiness and increase creativity.
You will hear many stories of peoples weird and beautiful experiences with mushrooms or possibly someone you know might have had a bad experience, but why have we only just considered using them to treat mental health disorders like anxiety and depression? Well, new technologies have allowed us to understand what affect psilocybin has on our brains, and the results are pretty mind-blowing.
It works when psilocybin converts into psilocin in our gut, which then binds to our serotonin receptors in the brain known as 2A receptors. When they link to these receptors, causing our mind to become hyper-connected, ramping up communication between different regions of the brain, this is what scientists call ‘neuronal avalanching,’ i.e. a domino effect of changes in the brain.
These changes are:
- Increased activity in the visual cortex, which is what causes our change in perception.
- Decrease in activity in the brains ‘default mode network’, resulting in a total loss of ego, which can lead us to feeling a sense of unity and transcendence.
- Increase in connectivity between different areas of the brain, leading to increased communication between brain regions that may not regularly communicate and allowing us to have new insights into old problems.
The brains' Default mode network
The Default mode network has also been called the ‘me’ network and is home to what Freud termed the ‘ego’. Brain scans have shown that the DMN will ‘light up’ when a subject is given a list of adjectives to consider relating to their self-identity. It also lights up during daydreams, magical thinking, self-reflection, and when we receive Facebook likes.
It’s believed that the default mode network can play a role in depression for some individuals.
Increased communication between different brain regions
At the core of anxiety and depression is an issue with connectivity, both in our lives and the inner workings of our brain. Having a reduced level of connectivity between regions of the brain is what causes the mental and physical symptoms of these issues, but is also why it can be so challenging to fix or treat the problem. If specific brain regions are not communicating effectively, it influences our general perception and can make it very challenging to accurately interpret our current situation, which is why we can get stuck in continuously negative trains of thought.
Increasing connectivity between different brain regions can allow you to create new insights into old problems, which is why taking psilocybin has been described as a ‘condensed talk therapy session’. In the way a therapist may convince you to look at an old issue from a different perspective, psilocybin can naturally aid you in doing this, as different regions of the brain that were not previously communicating before now are. People often describe their trips as one of the most profound experiences in their life for this reason.
How effective is Psilocybin?
In one study, 20 patients with depression were given psilocybin; during the study, all of their depression scores were going down significantly. Six months after the dose 6 of the patients were still in remission and 11 other depression scores had stayed down for two months after the trial, but then they started to show signs of depression again. Three patients had no response to the drug.
More studies are needed so that we can more accurately interpret the impact that Psilocybin can have of individuals with different mental health issues, and furthermore as many individuals have reported having ‘bad trips’ it is definitely a chemical we need to learn more about before we can start encouraging people to take it or even grow it.
How is Psilocybin different to other medications?
Medications like SSRI’s will treat the symptoms but not the core issues, which makes sense as how can a medication help you figure out the cause of a mental health disorder. By impacting our serotonin molecules, SSRI’s are designed to increase our feeling of wellbeing and lower anxiety and depression.
Many individuals who take psilocybin for depression report back that during their ‘trip’ they visualised their past traumas, and were able to unlock emotions associated with specific events that they had kept locked up for years.
Psilocybin isn’t the only chemical compound that can elicit the effects mentioned. We are also looking into the impact that LSD and Ayahuasca can have too. All class A banned substances in the UK currently; however, in the Us, things may be changing, especially for psilocybin, as Denver, Colorado became the first state to legalise its use recently.
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