By Daniel J. DeNoon
Psilocybin — the psychedelic drug from magic mushrooms — is back in the news.
A study to be published this week suggests the drug improves people’s sense of wellbeing, and might be a useful treatment for clinical depression.
In the study, 10 volunteers looked at written cues that spurred memories linked to strong positive emotions. These memories were, as you might expect, far more vivid when the volunteers were given psilocybin than when they were given placebos.
Two weeks later, the volunteers who had the most vivid memories while on psilocybin had the greatest sense of wellbeing.
“Our findings support the idea that psilocybin facilitates access to personal memories and emotions,” Robin Carhart-Harris, PhD, the study’s lead author, said in a news release.
Earlier studies, some going back to the 1950s, suggest that psilocybin can reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and cluster headaches. The new findings support recent studies in which volunteers given psilocybin underwent long-lasting positive changes in personality and rated the experience as one of the most spiritually significant in their lives.
The new work is part of a renaissance in research into psychedelic — many now prefer the term “entheogenic” — drugs.
All of these studies are being done under close supervision. None support the illegal home use of psychedelic drugs — particularly new designer hallucinogens, such as bromodragonfly, that can be fatal in small doses.
“It is not a cure all. It is certainly a difficult experience. This is not something people are going to abuse and do all the time because it is not fun,” psychotherapist and psychedelic-research advocate Neal M. Goldsmith, PhD, recently told me.
Interestingly, Carhart-Harris and colleagues also used real-time brain imaging to see how psilocybin affects brain function. Using state-of-the-art equipment, they found that instead of exciting extra brain activity, the drug actually reduces brain activity.
The areas where brain activity is reduced are “hubs” that connect various parts of the brain. The findings suggest that psilocybin takes the brakes off of the mind, “enabling a state of unconstrained cognition.”
There is evidence that in depressed people, those brakes are slammed on particularly hard. This, Carhart-Harris and colleagues suggest, leads to an “overstable state” in which thinking is “rigidly pessimistic.”
Even in a controlled setting, the use of psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs can lead to intense bouts of anxiety and even panic. The benefits of psychedelic drugs are still unproved; their risks are real. This is an extreme example of “don’t try this at home.”