In 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin, a natural hallucinogen found in psychedelic “magic” mushrooms. Much like the historic legalization of cannabis for medicinal purposes in California in 1996, this may be the start of a legalization trend across US jurisdictions. Similar to medical cannabis, you can pinpoint promising research results for psilocybin therapy treatments as the reason behind this new trend.
Although it’s yet to receive FDA approval, research has shown that psilocybin may help treat a variety of psychiatric and behavioral disorders.
How Does Psilocybin Work?
Psilocybin works by activating serotonin receptors, most often in the prefrontal cortex, which affects mood, perception, and cognition. Hallucinogens work on the parts of the brain that regulate both panic and arousal responses.
Its effects alter the perception of time and space while also intensifying changes in feelings and mood. Its effects may include:
Derealization (a feeling that your surroundings are not real)
Depersonalization (a dream-like sense of being disengaged)
Visual and auditory alterations
Medical Conditions That May Be Treated with Psilocybin Therapy
According to research conducted at several institutions, including John Hopkins University, Imperial College, and the University of California Los Angeles, psilocybin may be helpful for patients experiencing various medical conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction. Researchers have also tested psilocybin in the treatment of cluster headaches, end-stage cancer, and anxiety.
Recent studies indicate that psilocybin may be able to reduce depression symptoms in patients with treatment-resistant depression without dulling emotions. It seems to offer neuroplasticity, which gives the brain the ability to change, allowing patients to get out of the habitual ruts they find themselves in as new neural pathways are formed. The decrease in depressive symptoms was large and enduring, lasting more than six months post-treatment.
The neuroplasticity offered by magic mushrooms is also seen as effective in helping patients treat addictions in the long term. It may be able to shake them out of their habits and routines by giving them a glimpse of a larger picture. In one small pilot study, patients who were treated for nicotine addiction with a psilocybin treatment were still smoke-free at a 12-month follow-up. Similar studies are being undertaken for cocaine, opioid, and alcohol addictions.
3. End-Stage Cancer
Conventional pharmaceuticals like antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications often have little to no effect on cancer patients struggling with mental health conditions. However, researchers have found that a one-time single-dose treatment combined with psychotherapy appeared to be associated with improvements in emotion and existential distress in people with cancer. This natural treatment produced immediate improvements in depression and anxiety in cancer patients, and the effects lasted nearly five years later. The treatment also seemed to decrease cancer-related hopelessness and demoralization, while improving quality of life, attitudes towards death, and overall spiritual well-being.
While the precise mechanisms are not fully understood to date, researchers believe psilocybin can make the brain more receptive to new ideas and thought patterns, which may help patients take a more broadened perspective on their lives through self-reflection and mind wandering.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can be a relentless psychiatric condition that’s difficult to treat. However, animal studies indicate that magic mushrooms may be able to help reduce symptoms by stimulating the growth and repair of brain cells in the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and emotion. In a 2013 study, mice who were given psilocybin were able to more effectively overcome fear conditioning compared to those given a placebo. It seems as though magic mushrooms may be able to successfully break the traumatic fear cycle that occurs in cases of PTSD.
Results of a meta-analysis indicate that participants who were given psilocybin therapy showed significant reductions in anxiety symptoms. What’s more, the positive effects were still seen at a six-month follow-up. This suggests psilocybin, combined with behavioral therapy, may provide a safe treatment for anxiety over the long term, although more scientific research is needed.