By Liza Casella
Psychedelic mushrooms, colloquially known as magic mushrooms or shrooms, have a long and complicated history. While people used them in religious and cultural rituals for centuries, these mushrooms only caught the attention of the scientific community during the mid-twentieth century. Accordingly, scientific efforts began to investigate the effects of various psychedelics on the human mind. Psychedelic mushrooms also appealed to the general population, leading the era’s overzealous administration to classify them in 1971 as a Schedule I Drug — one that has “high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence…[with] no accepted medical use.” This classification, however, may be erroneous.
Psilocybe cubensis is the most common member of the family of psilocybin-producing mushrooms. Psilocybin is the compound responsible for the “trip” that follows the ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms, which belong to the drug class of hallucinogens. Inside the body, psilocybin is chemically converted to psilocin, an active agent within the central nervous system. Psilocybin is structurally similar to serotonin and, once converted to psilocin, it serves as a partial agonist for serotonin receptors by acting like serotonin and affecting the serotonergic transmission system, which regulates one’s mood. Moreover, while psilocybin does not interact with dopamine receptors directly, it leads to downstream effects that increase the amount of dopamine in the basal ganglia, the area of the brain responsible for motor control, behavior, and emotion. Ultimately though, the exact pathways through which psilocybin affects the brain are still being elucidated.
Furthermore, the effects of psychedelic mushrooms vary depending not only on the species and amount, but also the person ingesting them and the setting in which they are ingested. After consumption, people may experience euphoria, epiphany, visual effects, distorted perception of time, giddiness, dissociation, disorientation, and elevated energy. On the other hand, they may also experience anxiety, panic, and sadness, which are considered characteristics of a “bad trip.”
In the past decade, there has been a resurgence in research involving psychedelics, primarily for their potential in treating psychiatric illnesses. Psychedelic therapy was first studied in the mid-twentieth century before the government criminalized psychedelics and placed stringent restrictions on their use in a research capacity. Now that attitudes toward psychedelics and the necessity of drug criminalization have brought on new reforms, researchers have begun testing again if psilocybin has therapeutic potential.
In 2015, a study categorized alcohol use disorder (AUD) as the most prevalent substance use disorder in the United States though treatment options for patients are still very limited. Despite its ubiquity, Alcoholics Anonymous has a hypothesized success rate of between 3% and 8%. While these statistics have been heavily contested and the premise of Alcoholics Anonymous makes it impossible to track participants’ sobriety, it nonetheless remains that many people are still without effective treatment. This is where psilocybin comes in.
Pilot studies testing psilocybin therapy for AUD have demonstrated positive results. During one such study, ten participants with AUD each underwent twelve therapy sessions in a living room-like environment and received psilocybin after the fourth and eighth sessions. After ingesting the psilocybin in capsule form, participants were instructed to lie on a couch wearing eye shades and headphones. They listened to music and were instructed to concentrate on their thoughts and feelings while under the influence of psilocybin.
Interestingly, the study demonstrated that both the number of drinking days and heavy drinking days for all the participants decreased throughout the experiment. While this study had a limited sample size, other similar studies have found corroborating results apropos the reduction of substance use and cravings in patients with substance use disorders after treatment with psilocybin.
Psychedelic therapy is a promising method of treatment for substance use disorders as well as other psychiatric illnesses. Despite what the government’s archaic and flawed drug classification system says, psilocybin has been shown to be non-habit forming, non-addictive, and quite safe to use for people who desperately need novel treatment approaches. It’s possible that it could be used in the treatment of other substance use disorders with fewer side effects than current treatments. Psilocybin-assisted treatment for AUD holds significant potential and should be tested more thoroughly to determine effective guidelines for its administration.