It’s time to give ’shrooms a try — or at least let scientists do so
What much of society can’t imagine is that these mind-altering substances have shown potential to treat a slew of psychological disorders.
Photo: Chiaki Tsukumo / Associated Press
Psychedelic drugs are widely thought of as recreational and even reckless, evoking images of bad trips and spaced-out teenagers. What much of society can’t imagine is that these mind-altering substances have shown potential to treat a slew of psychological disorders.
We should be taking steps toward legalizing psychedelics for science so that researchers don’t have to jump through so many hoops to learn more. Our laws make it difficult to secure approval for studies on these drugs. The restrictions also make research extremely expensive to conduct.
Psychedelic drugs include LSD, DMT, mescaline and psilocybin, the active ingredient in what are known as magic mushrooms. They have been extracted naturally from plants for quite some time. Their use dates back as far as 10,000 years, with “sacred mushrooms” featuring in religious ceremonies as early as 4000 B.C.
Psychedelics are defined by their ability to enhance and alter sensory perception and alter consciousness. They do this by taking the place of the neurotransmitter most often associated with happiness, serotonin. The drugs target a specific serotonin receptor associated with mood and anxiety, with potential relevance to treating mental health disorders.
Recent research on psychedelic drugs suggests they are able to spark the growth of prefrontal neurons in the brain. Specifically, psychedelics promote the growth of neurites and dendritic spines in cortical neurons. This provides a promising path for safe and fast-acting treatment of depression and other mental health disorders, which are associated with a loss of dendritic spines. One small study found that administering extremely low doses of psilocybin decreased depressive symptoms dramatically for at least three months.
Despite such promise, psychedelic drugs are attacked as having high potential for abuse and lacking medical uses. But the consequences of psychedelic drugs are nowhere near as great as those of alcohol and nicotine, two legal and widely available substances.
Ironically, there is evidence that psilocybin and DMT can treat alcohol addiction. The magic mushrooms widely regarded as a poison have been shown to alleviate alcoholism substantially.
And let’s set the record straight: Psychedelics are not addictive. While it can be argued that they have been abused by some, the drugs do not cause physical dependence.
Moreover, the likelihood of “bad trips,” while real, is highly dependent on context, usually arising from irresponsible administration as well as the mind-set and environment of the user. And while all drugs have side effects, those of LSD and other psychedelics are less dangerous than those of many other drugs. So what are we so afraid of?
The Oakland City Council took the promising step this year of decriminalizing possession of psilocybin mushrooms and other fungi and plants with similar uses. Denver voters took similar action with respect to magic mushrooms.
We won’t understand the mysterious potential of psychedelic drugs to treat psychological disorders as long as scientists can’t even get their hands on them for research. It’s time for our laws and those who enforce them to recognize that psychedelic drugs may not be the enemy, and may in fact be our friends.
Laura Charos is studying neuroscience at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.