It seems the tide of opinion against illegal drugs is turning once again with scientists proclaiming that the Psilocybin Mushroom, popular with party goers and better known as Shrooms or Magic Mushrooms, should be successful for treating people with depression.

Mushrooms have been popular for a long time, with cave paintings dating back to mesolithic era (14,000 to 5000 BC) showing pictures of the fungus. Now research is starting to show that they have an anti-depressive effect similar to drugs like Prozac, but with additional mind opening benefits.

David Nutt of Imperial College London, who gave a briefing about the studies on Monday said :

"Psychedelics are thought of as 'mind-expanding' drugs so it has commonly been assumed that they work by increasing brain activity ... But, surprisingly, we found that psilocybin actually caused activity to decrease in areas that have the densest connections with other areas."

The first study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal. Researchers enrolled 30 volunteers who had psilocybin infused into their blood while they were inside magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners; these scanners measure changes in brain activity.

The second study, which will be published in the British Journal of Psychiatry this week, had the 10 volunteers experiencing enhanced recollections of personal memories from psilocybin.

Robin Carhart Harris from Imperial's department of medicine, and who worked on both studies, commented that psilocybin could be useful as an addition to psychotherapy :

"We're not saying go out there and eat magic mushrooms ... But... this drug has such a fundamental impact on the brain that it's got to be meaningful ... it's got to be telling us something about how the brain works. "

The use of psychedelic drugs is nothing new with writers such as Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, proclaiming the wonderful mind opening qualities of LSD in the early 1960s. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, also proclaimed that LSD was one of the most wonderful things he had done in his life, but the federal government finds the effects of Psilocybin and other psychodellics unenlightening, and has classified Psilocybin as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, with no currently accepted medical use.

Scientists say that two key areas of the brain are altered by the drug. One called the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and another called the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), are not well understood, but the PCC is thought by many to have a role in consciousness and self-identity, while the mPFC is known to be hyperactive in people with depression.

Drugs such as Prozac and other approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and deep brain stimulation, also appear to suppress mPFC activity.

Psilocybin seems to work by reducing blood flow in the hypothalamus, which is a part of the brain where people who suffer from a condition known as cluster headaches often have increased blood flow. This could go a long way to explaining why some cluster headache sufferers have said their symptoms improved after taking the psychedelic drug.

There have been only a few experiments and studies of psychedelic drugs since the 1960s and 70s, when they were newly discovered and in vogue, but during the last three decades with them being classified as controlled substances, little investigation was done

Researchers say they are cautiously optimistic, but clearly this is not a therapy that is going to go mainstream any time soon, and people should be cautious of trying to use the mushrooms themselves, not least because they are a variety of similar looking types that can be poisonous and cause anything from a bad stomach to extreme toxicity symptoms.

Kevin Healy, chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists' faculty of medical psychotherapy said :

" ... we are clearly nowhere near seeing psilocybin used regularly and widely
in psychotherapy practice."

Written by Rupert Shepherd