Updated: Nov 5, 2020
"I have come to think of psilocybin as a convergent methodology for investigation of the nature of mind. It wakes people up to the extent to which the normative way they hold reality is just one way of holding reality." – Dr. Roland R. Griffiths
If You See a Monster, Don't Run
In the shadows of other office spaces along Kings Street W. in Toronto, Canada, a Canadian life sciences startup focused on developing psychedelic pharmaceutical products to treat mental disorders, recently raised $34 million to fund the company’s clinical trials. The goal? How its product -- a sublingual film made with the chemical psilocybin that dissolves under a patient’s tongue -- might treat major depressive disorder. The focus is not for home-based use, but for psychedelic-assisted therapy that requires patients to be "guided" through a four-to-six-hour psychedelic trip in a therapist’s office. The therapist provides the "flight plan" that includes advice: "If you see a monster, don't run. Face it!" as well as eye shades and a choice of soothing music. It will also require multiple therapy sessions before and after treatment. Cybin’s lead program is targeting major depressive disorder, and it's a huge market, given the unreliability and side effects of current antidepressants. Yet Cybin's program is just one example of how the expansive, and re-birthed, psilocybin market is thriving. (And it could be growing in your backyard.)
In the early 1960's, psychonaut and Harvard professor Timothy Leary began experimenting with psilocybin, a synthesized form of the hallucinogenic chemical found in certain mushrooms and truffles. He surmised that psychedelic drugs might help transform personalities and expand human consciousness. And as the current research demonstrates, he was spot on.
In addition to Leary's controversial Harvard experiments, several other studies were conducted in the late 1960s and 1970s that showed psilocybin proved effective in treating mood disorders in cancer patients. (Then it was outlawed in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, abetted by Richard Nixon.) Imagine where fungi science might be by now if that Act was never written.
60 years later, psilocybin research and its effects on the brain have charted new territories for how we treat mood disorders and dementia. In 2016, Johns Hopkins University scientist's mirrored the previous research in this study. It examined psilocybin used to treat anxiety and depression in cancer patients.
Yet until recently, millions in the United States had never heard of psilocybin, but in Denver, Colorado, psilocybin is in the political spotlight. Earlier this year, the voters narrowly placed a ballot initiative that decriminalizes psilocybin, and its use or personal cultivation is now considered a minimal crime. Other states are not far behind. A measure legalizing psilocybin therapy was passed only days ago in Oregon, and proponents in California are canvassing for its use. But what exactly does psilocybin do? And does the same guided treatment work for other disorders?
Psilocybe the Brain Hack
Imperial College London researchers used psilocybin to treat a small number of patients with depression, and tracked their brain function before and after the dosage. CAT scans of patients’ brains showed remarkable brain activity associated with reductions in depressive symptoms.
These brain benefits were recorded as lasting up to five weeks after treatment. Psilocybin has shown it “hacks” the neurological activity of key brain circuits known to play a role in multiple brain disorders, again mirroring the studies done by Leary in the 1960's. The researchers were astonished to find that psilocybin, which they assumed would amp up brain activity, actually negated it, but only in a specific area called the default mode network. This neurological pathway is involved in a range of “metacognitive” processes, including self-introspection and mental time warps (time that is distorted).
This default mode network is active when the mind drifts. Also known as daydreaming or ruminating, it is this default that is calmed after ingesting psilocybin. Functional MRI imaging also revealed less blood flow in certain areas of the brain, including the amygdala, the small, oval-shaped region of the brain proven to be involved in processing emotional responses like stress and fear. Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, Head of Psychedelic Research at Imperial, who led the research, said, “We have shown for the first time clear changes in brain activity in depressed people treated with psilocybin after failing to respond to conventional treatments. Several of our patients described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment and often used computer analogies. For example, one said he felt like his brain had been ‘defragged’ like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt ‘rebooted’."
How to Change Your Mind
Michael Pollan's recent book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, has brought a focused attention to psychedelics, and it's also changed perspectives on psilocybin 's ultimate serving purpose in society. Is it strictly for professional therapeutic benefit or can everyone benefit? Research demonstrates that psilocybin has value for everyone. Properly dosed, a psilocybin journey shows lasting, positive effects on brain health, including an "openness" and unique new perspectives on things never realized before. Users also report increased empathy and patience for weeks after ingesting it.
As Pollan makes clear, now that science has made this incredible progress in psychedelics, there is the risk of propagating the sort of political backlash that occurred in the late 1960s, which of course stalled research into psychedelics for decades. "Think of what we might know now, and the suffering that might have been alleviated, had that research been allowed to continue," says Pollan. And this is precisely why he insists we need to be cautious with how it's presented in science. In many ways, psilocybin is a remarkably benign drug that has no lethal dose, and it is nonaddictive. As with any drug, the risks involve how it's used. For one thing, it's not a party drug. It's true, for example, that someone on a concentrated dose of psilocybin could have badly impaired judgment and, without guidance, could do something dangerous, like climb a palm tree and fall. Yet as research shows, carefully guided "trips" have enormous potential in how we treat in psychiatrics, and how we might be able to dose ourselves.
Why It's Growing in Your Backyard
Many fungi experts claim the soil and climate of Fulton County, Georgia resembles that of the Périgord region of France, making it an ideal place for psilocybe truffles, a fungi related to mushrooms, to grow. While mushrooms grow amply above ground, truffles grow underground and only in specific conditions. At the tributary of the Chattahoochee River, in a mossy patch of land, psilocybe Atlantis can often be found. Psilocybe truffles are measurably more potent than psilocybe mushrooms, so plan your trip carefully; after all, psilocybin has something to teach all of us.