From the 1950s to 1970s, researchers tested the use of hallucinogens to treat psychiatric problems. One of their options was lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). However, LSD's effects lasted from eight to 12 hours — too long for some patients and treatments.
The researchers turned to magic mushrooms for a faster-acting hallucinogen. They succeeded in isolating psilocybin, the primary hallucinogenic compound in the fungi. Psilocybin appears in many species of mushrooms found throughout the world. A mushroom trip lasted half as long as LSD, making it a more versatile approach.
Researchers found indications that the Aztecs and Mayans used psychedelic mushrooms during ceremonies. When the Spanish conquered those peoples, they forbade the consumption of magic mushrooms on religious grounds.
In 1970, the federal authorities classified psilocybin as a restricted Schedule I drug. They based their decision on the supposed lack of medical use and the accompanying risk of abuse like with LSD. (Related: Are “magic mushrooms” beneficial for mental health therapy?)
A recent spate of small studies took a new look at psilocybin. Their findings suggested that the hallucinogen might help treat the worst cases of drug-resistant depression.
Researchers remain unsure as to the exact means by which psilocybin may lift depression. But the mushroom-derived compound isn't alone in that regard — many antidepressants elude the full understanding of their creators, yet they still get prescribed.
Further, many people struggling with depression do not benefit from taking common antidepressants. They need alternative options for improving their mental health — like the natural psychedelics ayahuasca and psilocybin.
People who consumed magic mushrooms with psilocybin reported that their senses changed the mushroom trip. They might start laughing or talk in a philosophical bent. They might even see colors caused by sounds in a perceptual phenomenon called synesthesia.
Psilocybin also helped the brain reboot its processes. The hallucinogen activated a serotonin receptor that also got targeted by antidepressant drugs. However, a single dose of psilocybin sufficed to stimulate the serotonin receptor, suggesting that it outperformed the antidepressants.
Potential side effects include nausea, dizziness, paranoia, or a sudden panic attack. However, overdosing on psilocybin did not cause truly dangerous or deadly biochemical side effects.
Researchers at John Hopkins University administered psilocybin to patients with terminal cancers. The participants often suffered from extreme anxiety and depression. They reported that the hallucinogen treatment considerably improved the mood of terminal cancer patients. The positive results of their experiment led them to hope that psilocybin might get reclassified from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule IV type, where it would join sleeping pills.
Further, psilocybin is nowhere as addictive as the 1970 ruling claimed it was. In animal studies where rats received the hallucinogen after activating the right lever, the rodents didn't abuse the device to get as much of the substance as possible. In comparison, similar studies that used alcohol, cocaine, or heroin showed that the rats got addicted to the substances. The animals repeatedly activated the level for their fix.
As for people who consumed magic mushrooms as a recreational drug, they stated that they only took the shrooms occasionally, which matched the results of the rat models with psilocybin. In the United States and elsewhere around the world, psilocybin is slowly getting decriminalized. Much like what happened to marijuana, magic mushrooms may soon benefit the mental health of people burdened with anxiety and depression.