Mushroom worship in various parts of the world has existed for centuries. The ancient Aztecs referred to the hallucinogenic mushrooms as “flesh of the gods”. The effects of these mushrooms are due to the active indoles psilocin (4-hydroxy-N, N-dimethyl-tryptamine) and psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine). These two compounds will produce a variety of psychological effects in humans. Assessing specific effects often has proven difficult since the dosage in users has been variable (there is no “standard” mushroom). However, recent studies have served to clarify a mass of somewhat confusing information.
In the late 1950s the Sandoz pharmaceutical company produced Indocybin®, a synthetic psilocybin that was widely used at that time for treatment of a variety of psychiatric disorders. This drug had fewer side effects that the structurally similar LSD. Both drugs produce alterations in perception and mood, increased sensitivity to the world around the subject, and some types of hallucinations. Psilocybin had a shorter duration of effect than LSD and produced fewer panic attacks and less anxiety. However, wide-spread problems with the use of LSD and similar drugs led to them being classified as Schedule I materials in about 1970, the sale and distribution of which is very highly restricted. As a result, interest in the use for psychiatric treatment declined markedly.
In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the use of these psychedelic materials for treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. The availability of synthetic psilocybin has allowed standardization of drug administration and better control over dosages and timing. The ability to control dosage allowed a recent major study (1) to be carried out that evaluated the effects of psilocybin on healthy adults. The studies reported the following:
“Although psilocybin dose-dependently induced profound changes in mood, perception, thought and self-experience, most subjects described the experience as pleasurable, enriching and non-threatening. Acute adverse drug reactions, characterized by strong dysphoria and/or anxiety/panic, occurred only in the two highest dose conditions in a relatively small proportion of subjects”.
Recent research (2) has shown that psilocybin can be of value in treating the anxiety associated with late-stage cancer. These patients often have extreme concerns about their health, the pain associated with treatment, and issues related to their families. Depression and anxiety are common in this group. Administration of psilocybin under controlled conditions led to significant decreased in anxiety and depression; the improvements were often seen as much as six months after treatment.
Although this study is very preliminary, it suggests that psilocybin and related drugs may prove to be valuable in treatment of the psychiatric side-effects associated with many terminal diseases. Obviously, further research needs to be carried out to confirm these findings.
1. Acute, subacute and long-term subjective effects of psilocybin in healthy humans: a pooled analysis of experimental studies, Erich Studerus, Michael Kometer, Felix Hasler and Franz X Vollenweider J Psychopharmacol published online 20 September 2010.
2. Pilot Study of Psilocybin Treatment for Anxiety in Patients With Advanced-Stage Cancer. Grob CS, Danforth AL, Chopra GS, Hagerty M, McKay CR, Halberstadt AL, Greer GR. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010 Sep 6. [Epub ahead of print]