By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Psilocybin, the ingredient in “magic” mushrooms, helps with depression. Patients in test groups have found rapid and sustained relief from their depressive symptoms as compared to those taking normal antidepressants. The use of psilocybin goes back to the Aztecs and Greeks.
Other than the typical, reality-rearranging high that comes from drugs such as psychedelic mushrooms, their active ingredient—psilocybin—also appears to be an effective means for treating depression. A group of scientists in London conducted a study that used fMRI technology to capture images of more than 40 patients’ brain activity. Half the patients were given psilocybin, while the other half took ordinary antidepressants.
Antidepressant patients reported mild improvement, with fMRI images to match; psilocybin patients claimed to have had rapid and sustained improvement and their fMRI results were dramatically improved.
Humans have a long history with psychedelic mushrooms. In her video series Food, Science, and the Human Body, Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, explains our romance with magic mushrooms.
What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been
“During Pre-Columbian times, the mushrooms we now know as psilocybin were called ‘God’s Flesh’ by the Aztecs,” Dr. Crittenden said. “The Mexican mushroom had cult status among natives, and even the Spanish conquest in the 16th century didn’t disrupt mushroom worship. Its use continued through the Spanish occupation.”
The effects of psilocybin mushrooms, she said, were known to shamans and healers, though they believed that those effects would be diminished or “used in a profane way” if the white man got a hold of it, so they managed to keep it a secret until the early 20th century. A 1957 article in Life magazine held the world’s first published account of a Westerner who had tried the mushrooms, providing a description of the trip, as well as photos and drawings.
R. Gordon Wasson, a Wall Street banker, wrote the article.
“Wasson’s article was the impetus for experimentation with hallucinogens in the 1960s,” Dr. Crittenden said. “The counterculture at that time believed that drugs such as psilocybin and LSD brought the mind and the spirit together in the quest for transcendental knowledge.”
The State of the Fungus
Whether called magic mushrooms, psychedelic mushrooms, or ‘shrooms, psilocybin mushrooms are currently illegal in the United States. However, they’ve seen a recent resurgence in popularity, and many people put them on a checklist when they leave the United States for vacation.
“Western travelers to places like Indonesia, Thailand, and Bali can easily buy mushroom omelets and cold mushroom shakes from the locals,” Dr. Crittenden said. “In Holland, magic mushrooms are big business and are sold in the open market stalls where tourists flock to get their goodies. For a few years, psilocybin mushrooms could even be purchased in Britain, until it became illegal again in 2005.”
According to Dr. Crittenden, psychoactive fungi have been used since ancient times for religious ceremonies; even Plato drank mushroom tea at the Greek rites of Eleusis. The Celts, their druid priests, Vikings, and medieval witches also all used psilocybin mushrooms, to differing results.
“At low to moderate doses, psilocybin mushrooms make colors seem brighter, more saturated, and better defined,” Dr. Crittenden said. “At very high doses, the consumer could easily lose touch with all reality and dissolve into a world of color and form. Reports suggest that most people ingest moderate doses and have a pleasant experience: Light becomes fractured, textured, and patterned; long bouts of laughter may ensue.
“When the user closes their eyes, the effects are felt the strongest; a fantasy universe materializes that writers have often struggled to describe.”
It will be some time before psilocybin comes to widespread medical use, if it ever does.