The Good & Bad Sides Of Magic Mushrooms

by JR Thorpe

If you've hung around a college campus, music festivals, or just the right (or wrong) kind of friend, you've likely come across the opportunity to have some "magic mushrooms:" psychedelic fungi found in the natural world with peculiar, occasionally bizarre effects on human cognition. The active ingredient in magic mushrooms that does all the wonders in the brain is called psilocybin, and it's increasingly being discovered to have some very interesting impacts on our health and neurochemistry. To start 2017, what's better than checking out the state of the land when it comes to one of the most powerful drugs out there?

Psilocybin has attracted more and more scientific interest recently; we've seen how it works in the brain through cutting-edge brain imaging, which has shown the particular regions it tends to affect (like the posterior cingulate cortex) and how it works on brain cells. And a 2013 study showed that psilocybin stimulated brain cell growth and regeneration in the brains of mice, though we're not entirely sure if this happens in humans too.

For the moment, though, the science behind magic mushrooms and whether they're good for you indicates both good and bad implications for our health; so do your research before you dive in.

They Seem To Make Social Exclusion Less Stressful

The science done on magic mushrooms isn't normally using the substances themselves; it's all focussed on controlled doses of the active ingredient. And in a study from last year, Swiss scientists found that psilocybin stimulates parts of the brain receptive to serotonin, and that consequently it helps to dull the pain and negative impacts of something that hurts basically everybody: social rejection. What the researchers called "social pain" was mediated and lessened with a small dosage of psilocybin, something that they thought could be useful for people suffering from severe social anxiety or other psychiatric conditions that could make social pain pretty harmful.

They May Help With Depression In General

In the future, we may see antidepressants created from magic mushroom ingredients. At least, that's the possible interpretation of a blockbuster study published in Nature in 2016, in which 12 people who'd been clinically depressed for decades were given a single psilocybin dose, and showed massive improvement in their moods months afterwards.

The headlines were pretty heavy ("Magic Mushrooms Cure Depression!"), but it's important to remember a few things. One is that the study was small; another is that the people chosen for the study were a particular type of depressive, the "treatment resistant" kind, who had shown no improvement at all on any of the other available treatments on the market and had experienced the condition for a long time. Given those variables, it's not worth seeking out your college-age cousin whenever you're feeling a bit down; it will likely take years of testing for a psilocybin anti-depressant to reach the market, and it may not be seen as a one-size-fits-all tool.

They Influence How We Interpret Negative Stimuli

This discovery is possibly why psilocybin does all of its mood-improving work in the first place. Scientists from the University of Zurich found in 2014 that psilocybin in the brain goes to work on how we interpret negative stimuli from the world around us (for example, a negative cancer diagnosis, or being dumped). It seems that a dose of psilocybin does a number on our amygdala, one of the centers of the brain that processes information from the outside world and influences our mood in response to it. Psilocybin tends to shift the amygdala's emphasis away from negative emotional responses (shame, depression, fear) and towards more positive ones (happiness). Fiddling with the amygdala to help out with mood disorders has been on the horizon in psychology for a while; but this is the first sign that there may be a relatively quick way to do it — and the effects could be lasting.

They Can Help Cancer Patients Feel Less Worried

In 2015, the American College of Neuropharmacology published findings that may change the way in which we treat cancer patients. They gave groups of life-threatening cancer sufferers, many of whom often suffer from increased levels of anxiety and depression after diagnosis, two different levels of psilocybin. One group got a low dose; the other got a high enough dose to give them "mystical experiences" and the other hallmarks of a psychedelic trip. That one single high dose lifted the moods of the cancer patients for up to six months after it was administered, and they had consistently less severe symptoms of anxiety and depression than the ones who'd been given a tiny "hit."

It was a big deal for several reasons: along with the idea that scared, miserable people might be helped by some psilocybin, the new finding that one big whack of it could be helpful for months was an entirely new discovery.

... But Bad Trips Can Go Very Wrong

This is the most recent bit of research on magic mushrooms, and it's not necessarily a good thing (though it's not completely bad, either). The phenomenon of the "bad trip" in psychedelics is well-known; the loss of connection between the drug-taker and reality can veer in unexpected and terrifying directions. And the new study, from Johns Hopkins Medicine, highlighted the potential damage and worry of a bad trip when on a mushroom ride.

The study surveyed 2,000 people who'd taken mushrooms, and found that up to 10 percent of them believed that their worst trip had contained the potential to harm them or other people, and 62 percent listed it as among the 10 most difficult experiences of their life. It's a demonstration of the potential negative power of unregulated psilocybin, in doses moderated by guesswork rather than in scrupulous medical testing. It also shows that we know comparatively little about how bad trips might actually work, and that magic mushrooms are not something to be taken indiscriminately, even if science says they might be a good idea for some conditions.

So while this drug clearly has the potential to have therapeutic benefits, keep that in mind.