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Contrary to the expectations of scientists, it has been seen that psychedelic mushrooms suppress the activity of certain “hub” regions of the brain. They also reduce blood supply to thalamus, making it useful in the treatment of depression and headaches.

Psychedelic Mushrooms may Improve the Mood and Act as Anxiolytics

A new research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), has found that psychedelic mushrooms, better known as magic mushrooms, mimic antidepressants in their action. This is because, psilocybin, the active ingredient of these mushrooms, suppresses the activity in certain key regions of the brain. This suppression results in a free flow of information inside the brain, which, in turn, may improve the mood and act as an anxiolytic.

In a study, led by Dr. Robin Carhart Harris from the Imperial College, London, researchers tried to understand the mechanism of working of psilocybin inside the brain. For this purpose they selected 15 volunteers who had used these magic mushrooms in the past. The volunteers were made to undergo two functional MRIs of the brain- one after they had been injected with psilocybin and another after they had received a placebo. The blood flow to the various parts of the brain was studied in order to determine the effect of the drug on the activity of various regions of the brain.

The difference in the functioning of the brain after the two injections was stark. It was seen that psilocybin reduced the activity in the thalamic region, particularly affecting the anterior and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). The activity of medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) was also reduced in all the subjects after receiving psilocybin. While PCC plays an important role in self-identity and ego of a person, mPFC is a part of the brain which becomes overactive in states of depression.

Psilocybin allows Free Flow of Information in the Brain

The researchers noticed that people who take magic mushrooms often report a condition called as dissolving of ego. With their sense of identity lost, the individuals experience a sense of freedom. This can be explained on the basis of the reduced activity of PCC seen after the injection of psilocybin in the volunteers participating in the study. The participants also reported mood elevation after taking the drug. This is consistent with the reduced activity of mPFC. Many other antidepressants like Prozac also act by reducing the activity of mPFC.

One can deduce from the results of the study that psilocybin reduces the activity and connectivity of brain’s important connector hubs. This results in a state of “unconstrained cognition.” In other words, the activity of important hubs in the brain is reduced and this enables a free flow of information in the brain and explains the reason behind the vivid imagination of people who are high on psychedelic mushrooms.

Another important effect of psilocybin to be noticed by the researchers is the reduced blood flow to the hypothalamus. This can be used therapeutically in the treatment of cluster headaches, a condition resulting from an increased blood flow to this region.

Researchers say that the effect of psilocybin on the brain is direct. It does not in any way affect the respiration which, in turn, may reduce the blood flow in the brain. On the contrary, psilocybin mimics serotonin, a neurotransmitter. Psilocybin gets attached to the neuro-receptors for serotonin and inhibits the functioning of the neurons. The effect of psilocybin is transient in nature and lasts for about half an hour.

Although the action of psychedelic mushrooms on the brain has generated considerable curiosity, a lot of further research is required before one can use them for their therapeutic value.