Thursday 3 July 2014

The Psychedelic Ingredient in Magic Mushrooms

In a study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, researchers examined the brain effects of psilocybin, the psychedelic ingredient in magic mushrooms, using information from brain scans of volunteers who had been injected with the drug.

Scientists studying the effects of the psychedelic chemical in magic mushrooms have found the human brain displays a similar pattern of activity in the work of dreams as it does in the work of a mind-expanding drug trip. Psychedelic drugs such as LSD and magic mushrooms can profoundly adjust the way they experience the world, but small is known about what physically happens in the brain.

Magic mushrooms grow naturally around the globe and have been widely used since ancient times for religious rites and also for recreation.
British researchers have been exploring the potential of psilocybin to alleviate extreme forms of depression in individuals who don't reply to other treatments, and obtained some positive results from early-stage experiments.

"A great way to understand how the brain works is to perturb the technique in a marked and novel way. Psychedelic drugs do exactly this and so are powerful tools for exploring what happens in the brain when consciousness is profoundly altered," said Dr Enzo Tagliazucchi, who led the study at Germany's Goethe University.

In the United States, scientists have seen positive leads to trials using MDMA, a pure kind of the party drug ecstasy, in treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

Individuals who use psychedelic drugs often describe "expanded consciousness", including vivid imagination and dream-like states. To explore the biological basis of these experiences, Tagliazucchi's team analysed brain imaging information from 15 volunteers who got psilocybin intravenously while they lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.

They also found that volunteers on psilocybin had more disjointed and uncoordinated activity in the brain network that is linked to high-level thinking, including self-consciousness.

The volunteers were scanned under the influence of psilocybin and when they had been injected with a placebo, or dummy drug. The researchers looked at fluctuations in what is called the blood-oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signal, which tracks activity levels in the brain. They found that with psilocybin, activity in the more primitive brain network linked to emotional thinking became more pronounced, with several parts of the network - such as the hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex - active simultaneously. This pattern is similar to when people are dreaming.

"People often describe taking psilocybin as producing a dreamlike state and our findings have, for the first time, provided a physical representation for the experience in the brain," said Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London's department of medicine, who also worked on the study.

"I was fascinated to see similarities between the pattern of brain activity in a psychedelic state and the pattern of brain activity in the work of dream sleep, as both involve the primitive areas of the brain linked to emotions and memory."

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