They’re technically illegal in all 50 states. But so-called “magic mushrooms,” or what street dealers and those in the know refer to as “shrooms,” are a highly medicinal reparative food that scientific research put out by the University of South Florida suggests could be used to improve cognitive function. Researchers at the school found that a prominent substance in shrooms known as psilocybin, which is considered an illegal Schedule I drug by the federal government, has the ability to regenerate new brain cells and potentially even cure mental illness.
Much like the cannabinoids found naturally in cannabis, the psilocybin in shrooms binds to special receptors in the brain that help stimulate growth and healing, in this case brain cell growth and regeneration. After testing psilocybin on several groups of mice, the research team found that psilocybin helps repair damaged brains cells and alleviate or even cure mental disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and clinical depression.
Dr. Juan R. Sanchez-Ramos, M.D., Ph.D., lead author of the study, arrived at this conclusion after testing the effects of psilocybin on mice trained to fear an electric shock when hearing a sound associated with that shock. Mice given small doses of psilocybin learned to stop reacting to the noise much more quickly than those given no psilocybin, illustrating the ability of the compound to literally rewire neurons and promote positive changes in memory.
Recognized as a “nootropic” agent, psilocybin appears to have numerous pro-cognitive functions that can help improve the overall function of the brain’s hippocampus, or HP, which is responsible for learning and converting short-term memories into long-term memories. According to Dr. Sanchez-Ramos’ research, the ability of the HP to perform these and other functions is dependent upon the generation of new neurons in the brain, which psilocybin is capable of facilitating.
“The proposition that psilocybin impacts cognition and stimulates hippocampal neurogenesis is based on extensive evidence that serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT) acting on specific 5-HT receptor sub-types (most likely the 5-HT2A receptor) is involved in the regulation of neurogenesis in hippocampus,” says Dr. Sanchez-Ramos. “The in vitro and in vivo animal data is compelling enough to explore whether psilocybin will enhance neurogenesis and result in measurable improvements in learning.”
Psilocybin as a side effect-free alternative to antidepressants
Because of its ability to stimulate new neuronal connections, psilocybin may also be effective in the treatment of depression. According to Higher Perspective, people who are depressed typically have an overactive prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is directly affected by psilocybin. Related research out of the U.K. confirms this, having found that psilocybin literally switches off the anterior cingulate cortex, allowing depressed individuals to experience relief.
“People with depression have overactive default mode networks and so ruminate on themselves, on their inadequacies, on their badness, that they are worthless, that they have failed — to an extent that is sometimes delusional,” says Professor David Nutt from Imperial College London’s neuropsychopharmacology department. “[P]silocybin appears to block that activity and stops this obsessive rumination.”
Be sure to check out Dr. Sanchez-Ramos’ presentation at the Horizons 2011 gathering entitled “Effects of Psilocybin and other Selective Serotonin Agonists on Hippocampal Neurogenesis,” which discusses in further depth how psilocybin affects brain function:
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