By Emily Ledger
Boris Johnson recently announced that his government would be considering the possibility of re-scheduling psilocybin, effectively legalising its medical use. This policy change would place the UK alongside a number of other jurisdictions around the world that have, or are considering, legalising the substance.
However, there are many who may not have heard of psilocybin or its potential health benefits – so, what is it?
Where does psilocybin come from?
Psilocybin is a psychedelic substance that is found in a small number of fungi, often called ‘magic mushrooms’. These mushrooms have become well-known, however, they are largely associated with recreational drug use, hippy culture and anti-establishment groups. There is comparatively little awareness of the health and therapeutic potential of the substance.
What is a psychedelic?
Psychedelics are a class of hallucinogenic drugs that are able to trigger alternative or non-ordinary states of consciousness. These experiences can involve hallucinations including psychological, visual, and audial changes and can cause significant changes to perception.
Psychedelic experiences are triggered by the drug’s interaction with receptors in our brains and bodies. Psilocybin also mimics the effects of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to feelings of love and happiness.
Psychedelic drugs/substances such as psilocybin are often produced naturally in plants, animals, and fungi: DMT is found in a number of plants and animals, including species of the pea and nutmeg families and a number of toads, fish, and frogs; LSD is found in a type of fungus which infects rye and other grains.
The therapeutic potential of psilocybin
Medical researchers have been looking into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin for decades, and native societies in North and South America and Asia have been using psychedelic substances for spiritual and ritualistic purposes for millennia.
There is evidence that psychedelic substances, including psilocybin, can be useful in the treatment of a number of mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Despite promising findings recorded in the mid-20th century, research into psilocybin was halted relatively early on due to social and political responses to the popularity of ‘hippy’ culture in the 60s and 70s which was associated with the use of psychedelics. The introduction of the Controlled Substances Act in the US in 1970 was a huge hit for psychedelics research as substances including ketamine, LSD, and psilocybin were made federally illegal.
The new wave of psilocybin research
The turn of the millennium brought with it a new wave of research into psychedelics as governments continued to slowly loosen restrictions on the substances. Over the last 20-30 years, research studies into the potential of psilocybin have picked up significantly.
A recent study that was published in 2020 demonstrated the potential of psilocybin in the treatment of major depressive disorder. The study revealed that 71% of participants who used the psychedelic preparation showed a greater than 50% reduction in symptoms after four weeks of treatment. Half of the participants also entered remission.
A number of high-profile research facilities, including King’s College London, have carried out, or are in the process of carrying out psilocybin studies. These include research into the safety and efficacy of psilocybin in patients with treatment-resistant depression, and its effects on cognitive function.