Some historians believe that magic mushrooms were used in North Africa as early as 9000BC, based on images found in rock paintings. Throughout the centuries, several cultures across the globe, most prominently indigenous tribes of Central America, have turned to this natural psychedelic substance for therapeutic purposes or spiritual enlightenment.
In the counterculture movement of the 1960s, hallucinogens hit their heyday. The following decades, however, saw a shift towards more conservative attitudes and psychedelics were widely condemned. Fast forward to the present day, and opinions are starting to turn once again. With increasing evidence pointing to the potential benefits of psilocybin, scientists are exploring ways in which psychedelic compounds can treat a range of conditions, from depression to anorexia.
What Exactly is Psilocybin?
Found in more than 200 species of fungi, psilocybin is a naturally occurring prodrug, meaning it is metabolized into an active drug (psilocin) once inside the body. Once ingested, mushrooms or truffles containing psilocybin can have a profound effect, resulting in changes in thought and perception, feelings of euphoria, and visual and auditory hallucinations.
To gain the benefits of psychedelics without experiencing a full-blown trip, many have turned to the practice of microdosing. This involves consuming a small, or sub-perceptual, amount of mushrooms, truffles or LSD on a regular basis, usually once every three days. Advocates of microdosing report an increase in productivity, creativity, and general feelings of well-being.
"Once metabolized into psilocin, these tryptamine alkaloids stimulate the brain’s serotonin receptors, on account of their structural similarity."
How does Psilocybin Affect the Brain?
Once metabolized into psilocin, these tryptamine alkaloids stimulate the brain’s serotonin receptors, on account of their structural similarity. Commonly known as a mood stabilizer, serotonin is in fact one of the most important neurotransmitters for all aspects of the human body, not just mental health. Serotonin helps to:
- Reduce depression and anxiety
- Regulate sleep
- Form blood clots to heal wounds
- Control bowel functions
- Induce nausea to expel noxious substances
- Promote healthy bones
One of the most widely used anti-depressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which aim to slow down the reabsorption process of serotonin. As psilocybin shares a very similar structure, it stimulates 5-HT2A receptors concentrated primarily in the prefrontal cortex. This leads to numerous changes in neurochemistry, which includes the release of neurotransmitters, such as glutamate and BDNF, allowing the brain to grow and learn.
"In recent years, scientific research has focused on the link between hyperconnectivity in the DNM and depression."
This in turn opens up the potential for new cerebral connections, which may contribute to the increase in focus and creativity associated with microdosing psilocybin. Activation of the 5-HT2A receptors also helps to facilitate the discovery of new neurological pathways, with functional analyses revealing multiple connections.
In addition, the receptors are believed to subdue the Default Mode Network (DNM). This network refers to the state of the brain when ‘resting’, i.e., not engaged in a specific task, for example, when daydreaming, recalling memories, or thinking about the future. In recent years, scientific research has focused on the link between hyperconnectivity in the DNM and depression.
Imperial College Research
The effects of magic truffles and other hallucinogenic compounds are receiving attention across the global field of neuroscience. At London’s prestigious Imperial College, the world’s first research centre dedicated solely to this topic was established in 2019. Their studies have shown the potential of psilocybin to effectively ‘reset’ the brain, which may help those suffering from depression to break free from entrenched neural patterns.
Such positive findings have encouraged the researchers to investigate how psilocybin can treat other disorders, such as anorexia, which remains the deadliest mental illness to date with an astonishing lack of effective treatments. Similarly, the centre is hoping that this recalibration can provide an alternative to chronic pain relief, which often relies on addictive medications.
In fact, this possibility to reset brain activity without harm or side-effects could theoretically work for any number of negative behavioral patterns that arise, not just as a result of pain and depression, but from addictions, too.
The Effects of Magic Mushrooms and Truffles
Magic mushrooms simply refer to any species of fungi that contain psilocybin. Truffles, on the other hand, are sclerotia, essentially the vegetative part of the mushroom living under the ground, utilized by the organism as a food reserve. Consumption of truffles or mushrooms, either dried, fresh or in a tea, causes a similar response to taking LSD, which also includes the psychoactive element of psilocybin. Trips caused by LSD tend, however, to last longer and are considered more cerebral than the full body experience associated with mushrooms.
"And with no known side-effects, it’s no surprise that microdosing continues to attract more and more advocates as enthusiasm starts to spread."
With microdosing, the psilocybin still impacts the brain’s receptors, yet removes the occurrence of a full-on high. This practice has increased in popularity outside the scientific world, too, as users taking minute amounts of mushrooms or truffles report myriad benefits. Not only do supporters claim an increase in focus and creativity, but also experience more energy, positivity, openness to people and situations, and better sleeping habits. And with no known side-effects, it’s no surprise that microdosing continues to attract more and more advocates as enthusiasm starts to spread.