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Psilocybin Mushrooms: New & Intriguing Research

Written by Ana Aleksic, MSc (Pharmacy) | Last updated:
Jonathan Ritter
Matt Carland
Medically reviewed by
Jonathan Ritter, PharmD, PhD (Pharmacology), Matt Carland, PhD (Neuroscience) | Written by Ana Aleksic, MSc (Pharmacy) | Last updated:

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Psilocybin is a naturally-occurring psychedelic substance produced by psilocybin mushrooms, also called ‘magic’ mushrooms. With the modern revival of psychedelic research, psilocybin is being investigated for its potential to help people overcome depression and anxiety. Read on to learn about the history of its use and the intriguing current research!

Disclaimer: This post is not a recommendation or endorsement for the use of psilocybin or any other psychedelic drugs. These drugs are currently illegal to buy or possess, and the FDA has not approved psychedelics for any specific medical or other use. Additionally, the available research on them is still in a very early stage, without adequate data to come to any conclusions about their general efficacy or safety in humans. We have written this post for informational purposes only, and our goal is solely to inform people about what science currently says about some of the effects of psilocybin, and some of the potential future medical applications that researchers have proposed.

What is Psilocybin?

A Mysterious Psychedelic

Psilocybin (chemically known as 4-phosphoryloxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine) is a so-called “classic” psychedelic that belongs to the group of hallucinogenic tryptamines. But the story about indigenous use of psilocybin, and the more recent research on this substance over the past century is anything but classic [1].

Over 100 species of hallucinogenic “magic” mushrooms contain psilocybin (including Psilocybe, Conocybe, and Panaeolus). These mushrooms grow in many different parts of the world, and have been used ritually by many different cultures for at least 3,000 years [2, 1].

Despite the recent renaissance in psychedelic research, there is a lot of controversy surrounding psilocybin use, its current and future legal status, and its potential therapeutic effects. Not many people know the whole story behind the traditional use of psilocybin-containing mushrooms, nor about the efforts that produced our current state of knowledge about it.

Psilocybin is a naturally-occurring psychedelic compound found in psilocybe mushrooms, also called “magic” mushrooms. Modern research is finally starting to catch up with their age-old traditional uses, although the topic is still surrounded by considerable mystery and controversy.

Proposed Future Applications of Psychedelics

Note: Psilocybin is a Schedule I illegal substance, and has not yet been officially approved by the FDA for any medical purpose or other application. Much more research will need to be conducted before solid conclusions can be made about its effects and safety in healthy human users — and until more data is available, we strongly recommend against taking psilocybin for any reason.

The proposed future applications of psychedelics discussed below are still in a very early stage of research, and a lot more research will be needed before any solid conclusions can be made about the effects of psychedelics in healthy human users.

As such, we are not officially recommending or endorsing any of the potential applications discussed below, as the science behind them is simply much too preliminary to come to any firm conclusions yet.

As always, none of the information below should ever be used to replace conventional medical care. If you believe that you might be experiencing any of the symptoms or health conditions discussed below, it is extremely important to talk to your doctor first to obtain an official medical diagnosis and develop an appropriate treatment plan.

It is also important to note that all of the findings below pertain to studies in which psychedelics were administered by trained professionals, in a very safe and well-controlled experimental setting. In other words, there is no reason to assume that similar effects would be seen by casually using psychedelic substances outside of a well-controlled, clinical lab setting [3].

With all that in mind, let’s see what some of the recent science has to say about the possible effects of psilocybin.

“INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE”:

1) Treatment-Resistant Depression

In the first clinical study of psilocybin in 12 people with treatment-resistant depression, psilocybin was reported to greatly reduce depressive symptoms for up to 3 months after the initial experience. It was given in a supportive setting, at two increasing doses (10mg and 25 mg). It also improved anxiety and the ability to feel pleasure [4].

In another trial, psilocybin improved symptoms in 15 people with treatment-resistant depression. Just one week after the session, they were less pessimistic and their mood improved. Overall, psilocybin along with psychological support enabled them to gain a more positive and accurate outlook on life [5].

Encouraged by these findings, larger clinical trials of psilocybin in people with treatment-resistant depression are currently underway.

Psilocybin improved treatment-resistant depression in two early small-scale clinical studies. Additional larger-scale clinical trials to verify its purported effects on depression are underway.

2) Cancer and Terminal Illnesses

Anxiety in people with life-threatening diseases is often overlooked, although it’s linked to poor mental health and clinical outcomes. Psilocybin can help these people by drastically changing their outlook on life for the better. Finding meaning may transform despair into a positive self-exploration [6, 7].

When administered in a safe and supportive environment, psilocybin sessions have been reported to help people regain a sense of meaning, lessen their anxieties about death, and improve overall mood [8, 9, 10].

In a trial of 12 patients in advanced stages of cancer, a modest dose of psilocybin improved mood two weeks later, which was sustained for 6 months. It also reduced anxiety for 3 months after the treatment. None of the patients reported experiencing anxiety from psilocybin or a “bad trip” (likely because the setting was very controlled and safe) [8].

In a study of 51 cancer patients with depression, “high” doses of psilocybin (20-30 mg) were reported to reduce depression, anxiety, and fear of death, while also increasing the patients’ reported quality of life and overall sense of optimism. These changes were sustained for up to 6 months following their initial treatment. According to the study’s authors, the reported ability of psilocybin to enhance the patients’ overall sense of well-being may stem from changing their attitudes toward life, relationships, and spirituality [9].

Finally, in another trial of 29 cancer patients, a single dose of psilocybin was reported to rapidly and long-lastingly reduce anxiety and depression symptoms. The treatment was reported to reduce hopelessness, improve spiritual wellbeing, and increase overall quality of life. Most patients continued to improve further even after 7 months post-treatment [11].

According to a few early small-scale trials, psilocybin has been reported combat anxiety, depression, and fear of death in patients with cancer and other terminal illnesses. According to some researchers, these effects may come about through changes in the patients’ attitudes toward life, an improved overall sense well-being, and even increased spirituality.

3) Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

According to a single preliminary trial in 9 psychiatric patients, psilocybin was reported to reduce OCD symptoms. In this study, each patient received a total of 4 separate doses of varying sizes, each a week apart. Interestingly, while the dosages used in the study ranged from very small “micro-doses” (25 μg/kg) to very “large” doses (300 μg/kg), the study’s authors report that these differences in dose size did not appear to matter as much as one might expect — every patient included in this study reported experiencing improvements in their symptoms regardless of the specific size of each individual dose [12].

Although additional data in humans is currently lacking, one animal study has reported that psilocybin reduced OCD-like behaviors (“marble-burying”) in mice [13].

While these early results are promising, much more research will be needed to further understand the effects of psilocybin on OCD symptoms in human patients.

4) Addictions

Scientists first noted the potential of psychedelics, such as psilocybin, for treating addiction back in the 1950’s. They realized that the “insight-promoting effects” they produced may encourage sobriety. That’s when the term “psychedelic” was coined, meaning “mind-manifesting” [1].

Now, after many decades of scientific neglect, psilocybin is slowly re-emerging as a proposed option for overcoming tobacco and alcohol addiction, as well as many other substance abuse disorders.

Researchers have suggested that psilocybin may have a number of important qualities that may make it helpful as a future treatment for addiction disorders [1, 14]:

  • Psilocybin itself is not believed to be addictive
  • It is also reported to have low toxicity (at least, compared to many other common drugs of abuse)
  • It appears to be relatively safe when administered in a well-controlled and safe environment (i.e. the frequency of “bad trips” or other adverse consequences appears to be relatively low when taken under controlled conditions)

However, perhaps the most promising feature of psilocybin in the context of addition treatment is that it appears to be able to trigger long-term changes in behavior and thinking after just a single session. If true, this could be a huge advantage over other common forms of addiction treatment, which typically require a lot of long-term medication, ongoing therapy, and/or many other types of time- and resource-intensive interventions [1, 14].

Alcohol Dependence

According to one preliminary study of 10 patients with alcohol dependence, psilocybin was reported to help promote long-term abstinence from alcohol use. The initial psilocybin session was accompanied by 3 months of follow-up motivational therapy, and the benefits were reported to persist for up to 6 months later [15].

Smoking Cessation

According to one early clinical trial, psilocybin was reported to help chronic cigarette-smokers quit (without apparent side-effects). The smokers in this study were given both a “moderate” (20mg/70kg) and “high” (30mg/70kg) psilocybin dose over the course of the 15-week cessation period. Six months later, 12 out of the 15 patients reported having completely quit smoking cigarettes [16].

This finding is particularly noteworthy because the success rate reported — 80% — is considerably higher than that typically reported by other common forms of smoking-cessation therapy (which usually have success rates of 35% or less) [16].

Additionally, this study also reported that the stronger or more intense “mystical” experiences an individual patient reported, the greater reduction they reported in the cigarette cravings they experienced over the next 6 months after the initial treatment [16].

While this early finding is extremely promising, the relatively small sample size means that additional follow-up studies in larger populations will still be needed in order to confirm them.

Some early evidence suggests that ”insightful” or “mystical” experiences with psilocybin may encourage sobriety and help with addictions. Psilocybin treatment has shown promising results for alcohol dependence and smoking cessation, although more large-scale trials will be needed to confirm these early reports.

5) Mystical Experiences

Based on the findings from several of the studies described so far, multiple researchers have proposed that it may be the “mystical” experiences that psilocybin elicits — such as profound awe and overcoming a “limited” sense-of-self — which may be responsible for many of the subsequent, long-lasting psychological benefits [17, 18].

For example, the cancer patients who reported having more “intense” mystical experiences also reported relatively larger improvements in their overall mood and well-being. Similarly, patients with alcohol dependence were more likely to maintain sobriety if they had a strong “mystical” experience from psilocybin [1].

According to some researchers, findings such as these may signal a shift from the current medical framework, to one in which psychological experiences may have more wide-ranging benefits than previously thought [1].

In one recent study, 30 religious or spiritual people who has never previously taken psychedelics each underwent an 8-hour psilocybin session (30mg/70kg). After two months, they rated their psilocybin experience as having been one of great personal meaning and spiritual significance [19].

According to another study, after a 14-month follow up, almost 70% of the study’s former participants rated their psilocybin experience as being among the five most meaningful and spiritually-significant experiences of their lives. Additionally, 64% of the participants indicated that this experience had increased their overall well-being or life satisfaction [20].

Several researchers have proposed that the mystical experiences induced by psilocybin may be responsible for many of the purported psychological benefits associated with psychedelic treatments. Many participants in these studies report having experienced a positive shift in their well-being, spirituality, and overall perception of life. Nonetheless, larger trials will be required to confirm these effects, as well as to better understand their potential significance for mental and physical health.

6) Emotions and Mood

In addition to radically altering consciousness and perception, psilocybin is also believed to have a variety of potential effects on mood and emotions.

According to one preliminary study in 17 healthy human participants, psilocybin was reported to increase positive emotions and enhance overall mood. Additionally, when the participants were shown pictures of other people, their attention tended to shift towards focusing more on positive emotions and facial cues, while reducing attention towards negative emotions and facial cues [21].

One other study in 25 healthy volunteers reported that psilocybin may enhance overall mood, possibly by decreasing the activity of the amygdala, a brain region commonly associated with fear, anxiety, and other negative emotional states [22].

Relatedly, patients with mood- and anxiety-related disorders have been reported to have relatively increased amygdala activity, which may be involved in some of the primary symptoms of these psychiatric disorders. Based on findings like these, some researchers have suggested that psilocybin and other psychedelics may have future potential as treatments for these mental health conditions — but much more additional research will be needed to say for sure [23].

According to a handful of very small clinical trials, healthy participants receiving psilocybin reported experiencing more positive emotions, and better overall mood. However, much more research will be needed to confirm these initial findings, as well as to know for certain if these effects may have any future potential use in the medical treatment of mood- or anxiety-related psychiatric disorders.

7) Dream-Like States

A handful of studies have reported that psilocybin appears to induce “dream-like” states when used by healthy volunteers [24, 25].

In fact, there is a lot of similarity between the psychedelic state and the dreaming state, such as [26]:

  • An altered state of perception
  • Intensified mental imagery
  • Amplified emotional responses
  • Reduced memory for negative stimuli and emotions, such as fear

While the mechanisms involved in psilocybin’s effects remain largely mysterious, some scientists believed that psilocybin and other psychedelics may act on many of the same brain regions and pathways that are commonly associated with “out-of-body” experiences [27].

Psilocybin has been reported to induce dream-like states with altered perception, emotional reactivity, and memories. Some researchers believe that these effects could potentially tell us a lot about the brain mechanisms involved in dreaming and other altered states of consciousness, although a lot more research will be needed to understand these effects and the potential mechanisms involved.

8) Creativity

Although “creativity” can be a very difficult phenomenon to describe and study scientifically, psilocybin and other psychedelics have been associated with a number of individual psychological and behavioral measures of creativity, such as [28, 29]:

  • Enhanced cognitive flexibility
  • Increased divergent thinking
  • Increased mental associations
  • Unique use of language and words
  • Intense mental imagery
  • Increased tendency to find or perceive deep meaning in music or other stimuli

However, the exact mechanisms behind these effects — and their relationship to human creativity in general — is still unclear and hotly debated. Therefore, the current evidence is still much too early to conclude whether psychedelics have any significant or meaningful effect on a person’s creative ability [29, 28].

Psilocybin and psychedelic experiences may stimulate creativity, but many more large-scale, well-designed clinical trials will be needed to confirm these effects, and understand how they might work.

9) Psychedelic Psychotherapy

Initial studies in the 50’s gave birth to “psychedelic psychotherapy,” a concept that’s being researched again [30].

Most of the mentioned studies in this article have shown the benefits of psilocybin only in combination with psychotherapy. Psilocybin administered without psychological support and a supportive environment may have limited benefits and, in rare cases, even worsen someone’s condition [3].

Music and Psychotherapy

Psilocybin has been used with specific types of music to support meaning-making, emotional response, mental imagery in a psychotherapeutic environment. Music may play an important role in facilitating the benefits of psychedelic therapy, but more research is needed [31].

Psychotherapy and support are essential parts of psilocybin treatment. A combination with music therapy may be particularly beneficial, but more research is needed.

LACKING EVIDENCE (Animal & Cell Studies Only):

11) PTSD

According to a few preliminary animal studies, psilocybin may have some future potential in treating the development or symptoms of PTSD.

For example, according to one animal study, psilocybin treatment was reported to reduce behavioral signs of fear and anxiety in traumatized mice that developed a “PTSD-like” condition due to exposure to repeated, unpredictable electric shocks. Interestingly, relatively lower doses of psilocybin were reported to be more effective than higher doses [32].

In another animal study in mice, psilocybin was reported to stimulate neurogenesis (the growth and development of new neurons) in the hippocampus, a major brain area involved in emotions, mood, and memory. Related studies have reported that blocking hippocampal neurogenesis in mice often intensifies their emotional responses to fear-inducing stimuli, which may suggest that increasing neurogenesis in this brain region may potentially help counteract these emotional responses [32, 33].

Relatedly, brain-imaging studies in humans have reported that patients with PTSD often have smaller hippocampi, which may imply that these patients could potentially benefit from increased neurogenesis in this brain region [34]. Other studies have reported that increased hippocampal volume is associated with better treatment outcomes in human PTSD patients [30, 35].

Psilocybin may help overcome PTSD, although the direct evidence available so far is mostly limited to animal studies.

12) Neurogenesis

Neurogenesis is not only important in PTSD. In fact, the growth and development of new neurons throughout the brain has also been associated with improved mental health, cognition, and better recovery from brain injuries.

Some early cell- and animal studies have reported that psilocybin may help increase both neurogenesis and synaptogenesis (the development of new neuronal connections) in the brains of traumatized mice [32].

Psilocin and other similar psychedelics also been reported to increase the branching of brain cells and stimulate synaptic plasticity throughout the prefrontal cortex — both of which are processes that are crucial for mental health and cognition [36].

According to early studies in animals and cells, psilocybin may help stimulate neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity, both of which are believed to be crucial for mood, cognition, and overall brain health.

13) Cognition

Although psilocybin is well-known for its profound effects on perception, its may also have some significant effects of cognitive processing. However, the evidence available so far is mixed, and sometimes conflicting.

For example, according to several human studies, psilocybin slowed down reaction times (processing speed), but didn’t reduce the accuracy of memory. However, it may reduce focused attention and make concentrating more difficult [37].

In a study of 20 hallucinogen users, psilocybin was not reported to cause major cognitive impairments. However, it did alter working memory — especially at relatively high doses (30 mg/70 kg) [38].

Psilocybin may slow down reactions and alter working memory. Based on what little research is available, its effects on cognition are mixed and require further study

14) Inflammation

According to early research in animals, low doses of psychedelics may reduce inflammation. Substances similar to psilocybin are currently being explored as potential anti-inflammatory treatments, although much more data will be needed before any solid conclusions can be made about these potential effects and their mechanisms [39].

“Micro-dosing”

“Micro-dosing” has become increasingly popular over the years, spreading over internet communities and media.

Many different groups of people — ranging from students to businessmen — are reporting that psychedelic micro-dosing supposedly improves their concentration and problem-solving skills. Others claim that it helps them with everyday functioning. However, no clinical studies have directly investigated this phenomenon yet.

So far, the only studies that have been done on “micro-dosing” are based primarily on subjective reports from casual users who micro-dose on their own, outside of a medical or research setting. Therefore, while their reports are interesting, they should not be mistaken for hard scientific data about the effects, mechanisms, or relative safety of micro-dosing with psychedelics.

“Micro-doses” are typically considered anything that is 10-20 times less than a “full” dose, which typically amounts to about 0.1–0.3 g of Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms for the average person. However, it should be noted that the potency of individual mushrooms — even within the same species — can vary considerably. Additionally, some people may be much more sensitive to psychedelics than other people. Ultimately this means that it can be very difficult — if not even impossible — to accurately “dose” psychedelics, except through “trial and error” [40]. The guesswork involved opens up a lot of potential risk, and therefore casual personal experimentation is not advised or recommended.

One study recruited 21 people who experimented with micro-dosing. They reported improved mood, cognition, and creativity. Most considered that the beneficial effects helped them counteract anxiety and depression. However, others found psychedelic microdosing to be challenging and unhelpful [40].

According to the participants of the above study, microdoses were not reported to significantly alter perception or functioning. However, slightly larger doses (a quarter of a “full” dose, also known as a “mini-dose”) were reported to interfere with work and everyday activities [40].

Experienced users micro-dosed for a couple of weeks or months, one to three times per week, and then stopped for a period of time. However, some participants reported micro-dosing on a daily basis [40].

According to one very preliminary study, very low doses (0.014-0.043 mg/kg) of psilocybin were reported to improve mood in 51 cancer patients [1]. However, its potential effects on otherwise healthy human users remains unknown, and much more research will still be needed.

Psilocybin microdosing (taking 10-20 times lower doses) has become popular among certain recreational users of psychedelics. Micro-dosing supposedly boosts cognition and creativity without altering consciousness — but valid scientific studies on these purported effects are extremely limited.

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Take-away

Psilocybin is a naturally-occurring, illegal psychedelic produced by psilocybe mushrooms. It has a long history of use as a recreational hallucinogen, and researchers have long suspected that it may have a future of medicinal use. However, it is currently classified as a schedule I illegal drug by the FDA, with no officially-approved medical uses or other applications.

Currently, psilocybin is under investigation primarily for mental health uses. Some research suggests a potential for use in treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, and a handful of other conditions. However, we strongly recommend against using psilocybin or any other illegal drug for health reasons — at least until much more clinical data is available about its effects, mechanisms, and overall safety in human users.

About the Author

Ana Aleksic

Ana Aleksic

MSc (Pharmacy)
Ana received her MS in Pharmacy from the University of Belgrade.
Ana has many years of experience in clinical research and health advising. She loves communicating science and empowering people to achieve their optimal health. Ana spent years working with patients who suffer from various mental health issues and chronic health problems. She is a strong advocate of integrating scientific knowledge and holistic medicine.

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