A leading group of psychedelic researchers responsible for the study believes it may have unraveled how Magic mushrooms exert their therapeutic effects on the brain.
Psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms, helps open the brains of depressed people, “flip the switch” on rigid brain networks and make them less fixed on negative thought patterns, a new study published in the journal Nature Medicine suggests.
Many indigenous peoples have long used magic mushrooms and other plants for their healing and hallucinogenic properties, but only in the last two decades has there been a cautious resurgence of clinical research.
Now, in recent years, psychedelics, such as Magic mushrooms, have offered hope to many people with treatment-resistant depression.
Magic mushrooms would expand brain connections
The new analysis, of brain scans of about 60 people being treated for depression, and conducted by a leading group of psychedelic researchers at Imperial College London, deepens our understanding of how Magic mushrooms act in the brain, first by “dissolving” and then expanding brain connections.
The increased brain connectivity, according to the study, was not only seen during his treatment but up to three weeks later. In addition, this “opening” effect was associated with self-reported improvements in their depression.
Moreover, during the study, no similar changes in brain connectivity were observed in people treated with a conventional antidepressant (called escitalopram), suggesting that psychedelic works differently than regular antidepressants.
For this reason, the researchers say the results indicate that Magic mushrooms could be a viable alternative to depression treatments.
“These findings are important because for the first time we discovered that Magic mushrooms work differently than conventional antidepressants, making the brain more flexible and fluid, and less entrenched in the negative thought patterns associated with depression,” neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt, director of Imperial College’s Center for Psychedelic Research, said in a statement.
Previous studies had already confirmed the positive benefits of Magic mushrooms, but only so far is it possible to unravel more thoroughly what happens in the brain.
“In previous studies, we had observed a similar effect on the brain when people were scanned while taking a psychedelic, but here we are seeing it weeks after treatment for depression, suggesting a drag of the acute action of the drug,” said the paper’s lead author, Professor Robin Carhart-Harris, former director of the Imperial College center who now works at the University of California, San Francisco.
Brain regions rich in serotonin receptors
Specifically, Nutt and his colleagues found that people receiving Magic mushrooms had greater connectivity between brain regions rich in serotonin receptors and typically secreted in depressed patients.
The effect was “rapid, sustained” and stronger in people who reported that their depressive systems had eased. Their brain networks were more interconnected and flexible, one day after treatment and, in some people, three weeks later.
Important early research
Although the findings are intriguing, this is early research. Nonetheless, the researchers are hopeful that these findings may lay the groundwork for further research into Magic mushrooms’ potential to treat other mental illnesses, also marked by rigid thought patterns.
“An interesting implication of our findings is that we have discovered a fundamental mechanism by which psychedelic therapy works not only for depression but also for other mental illnesses, such as anorexia or addiction,” Carhart-Harris says.
“Now we have to check if this is so, and if it is, then we have found something important,” he added.
Moreover, the authors cautioned that, although the results are encouraging, patients with depression should not attempt to self-medicate with Magic mushrooms, as taking magic mushrooms or Magic mushrooms in the absence of trial conditions may not have a positive result.
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