Of all of the compounds to have been studied in the modern ‘Psychedelic Renaissance’, psilocybin has arguably received the most attention and excitement. It is a naturally-occurring tryptamine produced by over 200 species of psychedelic fungi, commonly referred to as ‘magic mushrooms’ or ‘shrooms’. While it was only popularised in Western culture in the 1960s, it has a long history of use as a spiritual sacrament in Mesoamerican cultures, with the Aztecs referring to it as teonanácatl, which translates as ‘divine mushroom’.
While it is often referred to as the active substance in psychedelic fungi, it is actually a prodrug which is converted to the active compound, psilocin, by enzymes in the body. Modern neuroscience has now revealed how psilocin interacts with serotonin receptors in the brain in order to produce a range of consciousness-altering effects, including visual and auditory hallucinations, euphoria, and the inducement of profound, potentially life-altering realisations.
It was first isolated by Albert Hofmann in 1959, along with psilocin, from samples of Psilocybe mexicana obtained by R. Gordon Wasson, who coined the term ‘magic mushrooms’ in an article for Life magazine published in 1957.
In the 1960s, it was famously studied by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass), through the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Despite promising early findings, it was later added to Schedule I of the UN’s 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, which was implemented in the UK through the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and in the USA through the Psychotropic Substances Act. This had a stultifying effect on the field, until the Beckley Foundation and other related organisations were able to conduct new research in the 21st century, leading to a modern resurgence in interest.
In 2016, the Beckley Foundation and Imperial College London published the world’s first feasibility study showing that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy could be an effective medicine for treatment-resistant depression, an application which has since received Breakthrough Therapy status from the FDA and reached a Phase II clinical trial.
Inspired by Amanda Feilding’s personal experience of having given up tobacco smoking thanks to a psychedelic experience, and assisted by funding from the Beckley Foundation, researchers at Johns Hopkins showed that psilocybin-assisted therapy can also be highly effective at treating nicotine addiction, leading to greater rates of abstinence than conventional strategies. Thanks to a grant from the US federal government, the team at Johns Hopkins are now carrying this research forward in the form of a multi-centre clinical trial.
Additional research shows that psilocybin therapy may hold promise for a range of other conditions and disorders, including anorexia, substance use disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorders.
Psilocybin for Depression
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