The science of psilocybin and psychedelic therapy
The latest breakthrough in mental health is to be found where you may least expect. Scientific research shows that the fruiting bodies from the mycelial underworld that we call magic mushrooms have immense healing power. The psilocybin mushrooms interact with our brains in very interesting ways, and psychedelic therapy may well be the next frontier in mental health.
What is psychedelic therapy?
Psychedelic therapy is the means by which specific doses of psychedelic substances are administered to patients as a way to break through the mental blockages that lie at the root of their issues.
Thanks to the success achieved in clinical trials, psychedelic therapy is undergoing something of a renaissance. It’s been found to help with addiction, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a variety of other mental health issues.
In addition to psilocybin, other substances such as LSD, ketamine or MDMA are also used. The altered states induced by such substances in the presence of a trained psychotherapist mean that people often experience deep healing.
One of the notable findings thus far from the clinical trials conducted is that of the long-term success rates associated with psychedelic psychotherapy. Where traditional methods of therapy often fail to bring about long term benefits, psychedelic research is beginning to show that compounds such as psilocybin have the power to heal and bring about lasting changes in as little as three psilocybin sessions.
Types of psychedelic therapy
There are several types of psychedelic therapy available. Psycholytic therapy is when therapists provide frequent low doses of psychoactive substances to patients. The therapist generally guides the patient through what can often be a deep experience. However, due to the lower doses used, these experiences are rarely overpowering.
More common is high-dose therapy. This generally consists of one to three high doses of a particular psychedelic substance. In such cases, patients often have a deep and meaningful experience. Using eyeshades and with headphones, they generally navigate the experience alone, with minimal interference from support staff. In such cases, the staff are merely on hand to facilitate a safe and comfortable setting for the patient. The principle aim of such therapy is to facilitate a peak experience followed by appropriate integration in the form of therapy sessions.
What does science say about psilocybin and psychedelic therapy?
The science behind these therapies is powerful, but due to the legal status of psilocybin in many jurisdictions, the data has been slow in coming. The last time that the use of psychedelic drugs gripped the attention of the masses was in the 1950s and 1960s — a time when we didn’t yet have the instruction manual.
Thankfully it’s all beginning to change, and a serious attempt is being made to understand the therapeutic benefits of the psychedelic experience. Several institutions have carried out research into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin. MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) and the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins have been two of the most prominent in the field.
Johns Hopkins University has run numerous controlled studies analyzing the effects of ingested psilocybin. When used to treat conditions such as smoking cessation, treatment-resistant depression, and anxiety, the results have been nothing short of dramatic.
Using psilocybin to treat depression and anxiety
A study carried out at Johns Hopkins in 2016 investigated whether psilocybin could decrease both depression and anxiety in terminal cancer patients.
Eighty volunteers with a terminal illness took part in the study and went on a journey to confront their mortality. The mystical experiences encountered by the patients led to many of them feeling much more connected to a wider reality, as well as having had a reassuring glimpse of the afterlife.
Researchers stated that 80% of the volunteers experienced a notable decrease in both depressed mood and in end-of-life anxiety. These benefits were deemed to have endured for at least six months.
Using psilocybin to quit smoking
In 2014, Johns Hopkins led a study investigating how psilocybin might aid in smoking cessation. In the study, fifteen participants were administered two or three high doses of psilocybin in conjunction with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for smoking cessation.
A follow-up carried out twelve months later showed that ten participants (67%) had still refrained from smoking. This result far exceeds the results of any other available treatments for smoking cessation, where the main challenge has always been long-term abstinence.
Further studies are planned to help determine the effectiveness of psilocybin as a therapy for Alzheimer’s, PTSD, and alcoholism.
Although the therapeutic potential has become more obvious, what is less clear is how psilocybin elicits such changes in the brain.
How does psilocybin induce such profound brain changes
If psilocybin shows us anything, it’s that human beings have the capacity for forms of consciousness that are radically different from our normative forms. What was once thought to be an “illusion”, is now thought by many to be a more accurate representation of the interconnected reality that we all inhabit.
In an effort to uncover just how psilocybin elicits this in the brain, scientists at Imperial College London began analyzing the images of the brains of people on psilocybin. Prior assumptions meant that scientists believed psilocybin would boost brain activity. But what they actually uncovered was that psilocybin reduced it.
Activity was notably reduced in an area known as the default mode network. This interconnected group of brain structures is thought to help enable self-reflection, mental time travel, and the ability to imagine the mental states of others.
The default mode network is active when our minds are engaged on something. And many scientists believe that the essence of the ego is formed here. While the distinct lack of activity initially surprised scientists, it does seem to correlate well with the common ego-dissolving experiences that many report during a psychedelic experience.
Many scientists conclude that the ego lessens its grip under psilocybin. And with the ego less in control, unconscious thought patterns and emotions are allowed to rise into the conscious mind. In the ensuing altered state after psilocybin ingestion, many people experience profound insights and the subsequent reframing of old stories, patterns, and identities.
Mushroom retreats and psilocybin therapy
While psychedelic science and psilocybin show remarkable healing potential and an impressive safety profile, one of the main drawbacks associated with it is its legality.
Psilocybin is illegal in most jurisdictions around the world. While underground scenes do exist in many places, various legal options also exist. One such option is that of participating in clinical trials, another is traveling to a country where psilocybin retreats are legal.
Retreats are most commonly available in countries such as the Netherlands, Mexico, and Jamaica. The liberal laws in these jurisdictions mean that highly trained staff can legally hold psychedelic therapy sessions without fear of prosecution.
Breaking the stigma associated with psychedelic therapy
Public perception of psychedelics began shifting in the late 1960s. The actions of men like Timothy Leary and the subsequent backlash against the counterculture movement of the 1960s meant that many of these substances were made illegal — something which also prevented the therapeutic potential from being studied.
Half a century later and things are beginning to change. As the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) continue to approve clinical trials for further psychedelic research, public opinion is beginning to shift.
As the healing benefits become apparent, many are willing to forego their old conditioned views of such substances. This shift is occurring faster than it otherwise might due to the fact that psychedelic substances have the power to target afflictions like depression, anxiety – mental illnesses that affect millions. And the fact that they have proven effective with as little as three sessions far surpasses that of other treatments.
In addition to the clinical trials, several well-known journalists have begun speaking on the topic. Michael Pollan, a well-respected food author, undertook a new line of study and in 2018 when he published a book called How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. In the book, he explores both the history and future of psychedelic substances, combined with his personal experiences of mushrooms, LSD, Bufo (5-MeO-DMT), and Ayahuasca.
Other plant medicines, psychedelic medicines, and techniques
Psilocybin isn’t alone in its efforts to heal the world. There are several other psychedelic substances and hallucinogens that exist with therapeutic potential.
Ibogaine is a naturally occurring psychoactive substance from western Africa. It has been widely used by traditional communities for healing. In the modern west, ibogaine has been found to be very beneficial in helping those with substance abuse issues.
Mescaline is a psychoactive alkaloid commonly found in the cacti of the Americas. Most commonly associated with the Peyote cactus, it has been used for generations by Native American populations. It’s not a part of the tryptamine class of psychedelics and functions differently to substances like psilocybin or DMT.
Ayahuasca is an entheogenic brew that’s native to the Amazon Basin. Indigenous people have used Ayahuasca for deep healing for centuries and it has become increasingly popular in the west. Many report having transformation experiences, clarity of life’s purpose, healings of past trauma and physical illnesses, reduced depression and anxiety, and relief from PTSD. Ayahuasca contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a compound that’s one molecule away from the psilocin produced from psilocybin. Ayahuasca is legal in a variety of countries and in some religious groups or churches in North America. However, legality isn’t stopping every major city across Canada and the United States from pouring this medicine.
Kambo is the venom excreted by the giant monkey frog and is a traditional medicine native to the Amazon. The medicine is absorbed via the lymph systems and is applied via small burns on the skin. Kambo provokes a short but intense physical purge where toxins held deep within the body are expelled. Kambo use often results in feelings of increased mental clarity as well as physical wellbeing.
Once used as an anesthetic in the operating theatre and on battlefields, ketamine is now showing real promise in treatment-resistant depression. In a therapeutic environment, it has been found to reduce suicidal tendencies, as well as effectively treat depression and anxiety. One form of ketamine known as Esketamine was approved by the FDA in March 2019.
MDMA assisted psychotherapy has seen huge success in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Under therapeutic conditions the use of MDMA allows trauma victims to relive the traumatic memories with a greatly inhibited fear response in the brain. Results have been extremely promising among veterans, and legalization will likely soon arrive. The FDA gave the go-ahead for MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) to carry out Phase 3 trials in using MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat PTSD.
Microdosing psychedelics has become increasingly popular in recent times. It involves taking sub-perceptual doses that result in subtle, but yet noticeable changes in mood and outlook. Microdosing psilocybin or LSD have been found useful in treating depression.
Altered states of consciousness can also be induced via the breath. Holotropic breathwork and rebirthing breathwork involve rapid and consistent breathing that gradually shifts consciousness to a new level. Individuals in such altered states can gain access to deeper parts of the mind, something that’s useful in releasing trauma.
The future of psilocybin
Early scientific research with psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy has given great cause for optimism. Psilocybin has demonstrated its ability to aid in healing many of the conditions our culture is currently afflicted with.
In addition to healing, psilocybin also challenges our perception of what culturally-sanctioned reality actually is. It allows us to see, to heal, and to feel. And indeed, it may be the very thing that helps save us from ourselves in the turbulent times.
That deeper connection that magic mushrooms enable suggests that some transcendent state does underpin the human experience and the way we perceive the world. The interconnected nature of reality is often all-apparent under psilocybin.
And the fact that science backs this up… well, that’s something very promising indeed.
Francis Cassidy is a freelance writer with a particular focus on the cannabis industry and plant medicines. He aims to help ensure the smooth reintegration of ancient wisdom back into global culture through his writings. Originally from Ireland, he now lives in British Columbia, Canada.