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Effects of Magic Mushrooms May Lead to New Anti-Depressants

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Back in the psychedelic era of the 1960s, many said magic mushrooms could “expand your mind.” But scientists these days say the exact opposite is true — and those findings may lead to new drugs used to treat depression.

The effects of psilocybin, the active ingredient in the mushrooms, was examined in two separate studies that showed it suppresses activity in brain areas that are also dampened by other anti-depressant treatments.

“Psychedelics are thought of as ‘mind-expanding’ drugs so it has commonly been assumed that they work by increasing brain activity,” said David Nutt of Imperial College London, who gave a briefing about the studies on Monday. “But, surprisingly, we found that psilocybin actually caused activity to decrease in areas that have the densest connections with other areas.”

He went on to say these so-called “hub” regions of the brain play a role in constraining our experience of the world and keeping it orderly, adding, “We now know that deactivating these regions leads to a state in which the world is experienced as strange.”

Volunteers in the first study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, had psilocybin infused into their blood while inside MRI scanners, which measure changes in brain activity. The results showed activity decreased in “hub” regions, with many participants describing the sensation of “cogs being loosened” and an altered sense of self.

The second study, set to be published Thursday in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that psilocybin enhanced volunteers’ recollections of personal memories.

More research is needed, but both studies’ findings suggest psilocybin could be useful for psychotherapy purposes.

Dr. Nutt cautions against using the mushrooms until more is known, but says the 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. So we should be studying it and optimizing it if there’s a therapeutic benefit.”

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