How Magic Mushrooms Change Your Brain

Adapted from David J via flickr

Psilocybin is a chemical found in magic mushrooms that causes the user to experience a sensory overload of saturated colors and patterns. Recent research has found that this effect happens because the brain becomes “hyperconnected” and allows for increased communication between different regions. It is hoped that this ability can be manipulated in order to manufacture drugs to treat neurological conditions. The paper was published in an open access format in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface with Giovanni Petri of Italy’s ISI Foundation serving as lead author. 

The chemical works by binding the same receptors in the brain as the neurotransmitter serotonin. This allows the drug to alter mood. While many people have a happy, meaningful experience, some can have a “bad trip” and experience extreme paranoia  Prior studies have found that that getting high on psilocybin doesn’t just create a colorful, psychedelic experience for a couple of hours; it can cause neurological changes that last over a year. These changes resulted in a personality that was more open to the creative arts and became happier, even 14 months after receiving the psilocybin. 

Though previous research surmised that psilocybin decreased brain activity, the current study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see what was really going on. The study used 15 participants with prior positive experiences with hallucinogens to avoid a bad trip inside the enclosed machine. Some of the participants received psilocybin, while the other half received a saline placebo.

Simplified illustration of the connections tracked while receiving the placebo (a) and the psilocybin (b). Image credit: Petri et al., 2014.

Surprisingly, the researchers saw that upon receiving psilocybin, the brain actually re-organized connections and linked previously unconnected regions of the brain. These connections were not random, but appeared very organized and stable. Once the drug wore off, the connections returned to normal. 

“We can speculate on the implications of such an organization. One possible by-product of this greater communication across the whole brain is the phenomenon of synesthesia which is often reported in conjunction with the psychedelic state,” the authors wrote

Synesthesia is a subconscious pairing of two things, like colors and numbers. Someone experiencing this phenomenon might always view the number 2 as green or read 6 and think of the color purple. Because of these strange associations, individuals taking psilocybin likely have poor color perception, despite being inundated with the hallucinogenic colors.

The mechanism of how psilocybin is creating these changes is not yet known and will require further study. The researchers believe that in understanding the drug’s mechanism for temporarily re-wiring the brain and altering mood, it could potentially be manipulated into making a functional treatment for depression or other disorders. However, there is much more to be learned before it can be used in that manner.

[Hat tip: LiveScience]

[Header image adapted from David J via flickr]

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