Fungal therapy: the debate over magic mushrooms in medicine

Each autumn, before the first frosts set in, you might notice groups of people or solitary figures bent double in the UK countryside, moving slowly but surely through fields and woodland areas.

Perhaps they’ve lost a contact lens or maybe they just enjoy staring at cow shit, but more than likely they’re on the hunt for Psilocybe Semilanceata, also known as the Liberty Cap, or the humble English magic mushroom.

Xochipilli - the Aztec goddess of psychoactive plants

Xochipilli or ‘The Prince of Flowers’ – the Aztec goddess of psychoactive plants [Flickr: Jan Vrsinky]

Stereotypically the domain of the stoner or the student, the hippy or the tripper, the magic mushroom has been an iconic emblem of psychedelia since the 1960s, but its recreational and ritual usage stretches back much further.

Paintings depicting mushroom-shaped humanoids in the Tassili Plateau caves of Northern Algeria date back as far as 5000 BC, whilst the ancient cultures of Central and South America built temples and worshipped gods devoted to psychedelic plants, including mushrooms (many indigenous tribes still do).

In the centuries since, ‘shrooms have had a turbulent history, intriguing both scientists and psychonauts, and making law enforcers scratch their heads worldwide.

They’ve inspired countless writers, artists and musicians, from Charles Dickens and Carlos Castaneda, to The Beatles and Bob Dylan.

The popularity of magic mushrooms in modern counter-culture is largely thanks to the research of maverick New York banker Robert Gordon Wasson, who made regular visits to Oaxaca, Mexico in the 1950s to observe and partake in indigenous Mazatec healing ceremonies, involving the shamanic ritual usage of psychedelic mushrooms.

In 1956, following Wasson’s research, the young chemist and ‘godfather’ of psychedelics Albert Hoffman isolated and synthesized the mushrooms’ active ingredients – psilocybin and psilocin – and it wasn’t long before the compounds and their bi-products found widespread use both recreationally and therapeutically in the United States, Australia and beyond.

In 1968 possession of psilocybin and psilocin became illegal in the USA and research into their therapeutic use had all but ceased by 1977.

In Europe, the legal status of both magic mushrooms and their active ingredients has been a grey area for some time.

Up until 2005 in the UK, city centre shops, online vendors and festival traders were legally allowed to sell a mind-boggling array of fresh magic mushroom varieties to anyone willing to part with their cash.

In Holland, it’s now only legal to buy and sell ‘magic truffles’, or sclerotia, a particular strain of psychoactive fungus.

Magic mushroom varietals being sold legally in a Dutch 'smart shop'

Magic truffles being sold legally in a Dutch ‘smart shop’. [Flickr]

As the law stands today, possession of fresh or dried magic mushrooms, or psilocybin and psilocin by-products comes under Class A illegal status in the UK, and while it is legal to buy cultivation kits, it is still illegal to use them.

A grey area indeed, and away from the recreational use of magic mushrooms, this legal fug poses complications for an increasing trend towards the use of psilocybin and other psychedelics as therapeutic aids for a variety of disorders.

From the 1950s until their classification in the 1970s, psychedelic drugs were extensively researched as medical treatments, most prominently LSD.

The drug became heavily stigmatised thanks to its rife and irresponsible promotion by the likes of Dr. Timothy Leary, and despite a reputation for having adverse affects on subjects’ mental health, retrospective reports from the late 1960s and early ‘70s published in 2012 demonstrate the efficacy of LSD treating alcohol addiction “as successful as any treatment since”, according to former government drug adviser Professor David Nutt.

Professor David Nutt

Professor David Nutt [Flickr: Vicky Symons]

More recently, increasing evidence has shown that psilocybin, along with other psychedelic drugs, when administered in controlled amounts in a safe, clinical environment can be an effective treatment for depression and addiction, as well as certain physical and emotional conditions.

Leading the charge behind this controversial methodology is Professor Nutt and Dr Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College’s Neuropsychopharmacology Centre in London.

Speaking to the Guardian last October, Dr Carhart-Harris explained his findings following a study of 15 volunteers using psilocybin under MRI scanners: “As a non-clinician, I was convinced by seeing how psilocybin affects the brain. It was quite stark how similar it was to the existing treatments for depression.”

So what’s the science behind this fungal therapy?

When treating depression, Nutt and Carhart-Harris’ research suggests the compound suppresses the part of the brain called the medial pre-frontal cortex, the region that’s linked to introspection and obsessive thinking, and hyperactivity in those who suffer from depression.

Tentative research into anxiety, depression and emotional disorders in patients with terminal illness also appears to be yielding positive results, as demonstrated by Annie’s experiences in the video below:

Another institute pioneering research into psilocybin’s medical potential is the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. Associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Johns Hopkins, Matthew Johnson, is leading a team researching the effects of psilocybin on addiction, working alongside 15 volunteers addicted to smoking tobacco (on average 19 cigarettes a day for 31 years).

Psilocybe cubensis, aka Mexican magich mushrooms.

Psilocybe cubensis, aka Mexican magic mushrooms [Flickr: vertigo06]

The volunteers underwent a 15-week trial period, combining regular sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy and administration of pure psilocybin capsules, once each at week five and week seven, and optionally at week 13.

At the end of the six-month follow-up period, 80% of the volunteers had quit smoking.

Again the science seems to make sense. As Johnson explains to The Pharmaceutical Journal, “psilocybin hits the same primary brain receptor as LSD, called serotonin 2A” – when stimulated by psychedelics these receptors appear to decrease activity in the area known as the default mode network (DMN), where humans deal with ingrained behaviours and patterns.

As Professor Nutt explains, “during illnesses like depression or addiction, the default mode network in the brain becomes over-engaged with negative thoughts or cravings,” and a reduction in activity in the DMN “allows people to break free” from these patterns.

Pure psilocybin extract for medical use.

Pure psilocybin extract for medical use [Flickr]

Safety is clearly one issue that is important to discuss when contemplating the use of psychedelic drugs as medical or therapeutic treatments, as Dr. Carhart-Harris explains to the Guardian:

“Self-medication is definitely a no-no from my perspective,” he says. “These drugs are powerful and the therapeutic model we are going to adhere to is quite specific in that it emphasises that the drug needs to be taken in the right environment and with the right support. We have professional psychotherapists there who are trained and understand all the eventualities of what might happen, and so I think it would be reckless for people to try to do it by themselves.”

Despite safety concerns and the historic social stigma attached to psychedelic drugs, the evidence supporting their benefits seems hard to ignore. However, the current legal status of psilocybin is preventing progress in the field, as Dr. Carhart-Harris continues:

“It’s a ‘Catch-22’; it’s difficult to study LSD and psilocybin to see if they have medical use because they are Schedule One. And they are only classed as Schedule One because they are deemed to have no medical use.”

Change seems to be on the horizon though, with a second phase of psilocybin treatment for addiction at Johns Hopkins currently taking place, and amongst the legal red tape Imperial College scientists were awarded a Medical Research Council grant in 2013 to study the effects of psilocybin on a dozen patients suffering from depression.

Artefact talked to four case studies with varying experiences of using psilocybin, both recreationally and therapeutically. Here are their stories…



Emma, 27 – Graphic designer

“My experiences with magic mushrooms have always been positive. I take them most years when the first crop of Liberty Caps appears in the UK, and it’s become something of a ritual for me and my friends.

My first trip stays with me the most. I was 15 and fairly naïve to drugs, having only smoked weed a few times. We picked in fields locally. Apparently it was a regular spot, and one that generations of trippers had taken advantage of in the years before us.

Having collected about 600 between us we went back to my friend’s house and made a large brew of mushroom tea. We drank several cups each before returning to the fields we’d picked them in.

My main memory of that night was feeling completely and utterly connected with earth, nature, and my friends in that field. In terms of visual hallucinations, they were secondary. Traces and patterns in the sky and pleasant contortions in my friends’ appearances grew stronger, but it was this organic connection that resonated most. The experience and setting felt strangely timeless, and amongst the giggles and fire crackling, I was convinced I had left that time and space.

The next day I felt different – mentally and spiritually – cleansed, if you like. Certainly my mind had been opened to something far bigger than my 15-year old self. Life-changing? Not really, but it definitely led me on to psychedelic experiences with substances such as LSD and DMT that have been.”

Danny, 29 – Mechanic

“About ten years ago, some friends and I bought some ‘shop legal’ Mexican mushrooms. As evening came we decided to munch them down. I put mine in a pot noodle – they tasted horrific. As I began to come up there was a sense of warmth mixed with a feeling of uncertainty. My first bad wave came when I farted and actually thought I’d soiled myself. So much so that I had my jeans and boxers around my ankles trying to clean myself up in front of everyone.

Next came the main event. One of our friends who had also eaten the mushrooms was asleep on the floor. Another friend who hadn’t eaten mushrooms, but had taken other drugs, jokingly told me I had sexually assaulted him to death (the friend on the floor), and I believed him. After a short while of believing this, I worked out that I hadn’t committed a sex act, but I had definitely killed him in some way.

Over the next seven hours my friend didn’t move and I experienced the most horrifying, haunting and realistic terror of my entire life. I was hysterical. To me, my friend looked dead. I was hallucinating to such a degree I could see blood and glass all over the floor and around him. I was uncontrollable, wanting to ring the police and confess what I had done. I also wanted to ring my parents and tell them. Worst of all, I wanted to kill myself because I thought I had murdered one of my best friends. I believe if I wasn’t restrained and looked after by my mates I would have done.”

Jack, 31 – Artist

Since the age of 12 I’ve suffered from recurring migraine attacks. The frequency of the attacks varies from one every three months to one or two a week. Without the use of strong painkillers and anti-nausea drugs these episodes last for up to 24 hours, during which time I am incapable of leaving my bed. The headache usually begins to subside after a day. I am left with what feels like bruising of the brain.

Sudden swift movements of my head cause sharp pains in my skull. The trigger for my attacks is rapid changes in atmospheric pressure. Descending or ascending through thick cloud cover in a plane or from the approach of a storm can induce them. I have relieved the attack symptoms through the use of codeine, although this only dulls the pain.

Whilst working at The Barbican in London I met former UK government drug adviser Dr David Nutt who was taking part in a neuroscience festival. Our chat moved onto psilocybin and he told me his new research focused on using the drug to prevent migraine attacks. He told me the evidence for this was only anecdotal and he intended to produce a full scientific study but he was being hindered by the classification of the drug – he was legally unable to obtain psilocybin. He also told me that in order for it to have long lasting effects (preventing migraines for up to a year) you needed to take a strong psychedelic dose.

Later that year at a festival in Germany, having not used any psychedelic drugs for a few years, I accidentally took what I now believe to be a drug from Shulgin’s ‘2C’ family of psychedelic phenethylamines, thinking it was MDMA. I experienced what I consider to be a very strong trip, lasting for about 26 hours. Following this experience I didn’t have a single migraine attack for seven months. I attribute this to the effects of the drugs.

Once the attacks started coming back I sought out some magic mushrooms and took a less intense dose. This relieved me of attacks for five months.

I take a dose about once every six months or when the attacks begin to return, usually brewed up as a tea. I’ve been doing this for two years and I’m convinced that psychedelic drugs are preventing the attacks and I will continue to use them, despite their Class A status in the UK.”

Ollie, 35 – Music Promoter

“I suffered with severe alcohol dependency for 15 years. Through this time I tried many ways and means to escape the trap – meditation, peer support, mutual aid, one-to-one key work, etc. All of these techniques were useful, but ultimately I always went back to the drink – be it weeks or months later, it always happened.

Psilocybin was something I always stayed away from in a recreational sense following horrendous experiences on it when I was younger. As a person that takes their problems seriously I was very devoted to trying to understand my illness (yes I believe addiction is an illness, with bio-psychosocial factors playing a huge role) and would read everything and anything to try and ‘cure’ myself.

Then during one period of sobriety I stumbled upon the idea that psilocybin is a medicine, not in fact the party drug I originally believed it was.

Willing to try anything to help myself I undertook a ceremony using psilocybin at home, alone, and the results were shocking. The experience taught me that I am OK to accept that addiction is part of my life, and not to fight it but to be kind to myself. All through the previous attempts I had been stoically sober, but thinking I was missing out, wishing I could drink or “join in”. The mushroom taught me that I didn’t need to join in, I wasn’t missing out. In fact I was gaining life by not drinking, and that not drinking is the path for me.

Further experiences cemented these fundamental understandings in my psyche, as well as teaching me the sanctity and value of life, and even showed me that alcohol would kill me eventually. I saw it clearly for the toxic poison that it is. Some might have found these things terrifying or a ‘bad trip’, but trust me after 15 years of drinking, numerous hospitalisations and stage three liver disease; these revelations were like an epiphany.

I am now two years sober and continue to use psilocybin in a ritual setting for further personal development and understanding. It didn’t just stop me drinking, but made me a better person, both mentally and physically. I am now eight stone lighter in weight, my liver disease has gone and I have started to live my life the way I want to, not the way our drunken society wants me to.

Psilocybin tells you the truth, nothing more, nothing less and for that I am eternally grateful.”

 

 

Featured image by Daniel Johnson (Flickr).