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A Conscious Approach: The Reframing of Fungi

Updated: May 24, 2022

Euan Cook reports on the fertile research behind psychedelic treatment and how psilocybin mushrooms could become a significant antidepressant in tackling mental health.

Photo by Andre Moura

Major depressive disorder affects approximately 10% of the general population in the United Kingdom: approximately 6.7 million people. However, research is edging into a new field of study, one which involves mushrooms as a possible solution to improving mental health.

There are over 180 species of mushroom which possess one hallucinogenic compound thought to be valuable in limiting depressive symptoms: psilocybin. Psilocybin occurs naturally in the psychoactive psilocybe genus of mushrooms and targets the serotonin receptor agonism: a primary cog functioning in the complicated pathway implicated with depression.

Currently, those who suffer from depression are prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, to monitor the levels of serotonin in one’s body, low levels of which are linked to depression and anxiety.

With psychedelic treatment, however, your body breaks psilocybin down into psilocin, a chemical similar to serotonin which induces increased sensory perception, heightened emotions, hallucinations, and even euphoria. Specifically, psilocin targets a part of the brain called the claustrum which is responsible for processing sensory information, playing a significant role in increased emotional processing and, consequently, improving depressive symptoms.

The Harris Poll and Public Sentiment

One methodology of gauging public opinion on mushrooms is through surveys, the most prominent survey being The Harris Poll which has tracked public opinion, motivations, and social sentiment since 1963 in the US. The study was conducted in December 2021 among 2,037 adults, among whom 953 suffer from mental health issues. 65% of Americans want access to psychedelics for mental health, including psilocybin mushrooms, ketamine, and MDMA, proving that there is certainly a demand for mushrooms in mainstream treatment. Moreover, 83% of Americans who experience mental health issues would be willing to try alternative treatments, with 62% wanting to trial psilocybin. A desire to stray away from traditional antidepressants, such as SSRIs, seems to reverberate off a minority who are dissatisfied with the effect of SSRIs. 18% of surveyed individuals reported that there was no improvement to their condition or, even worse, a back-slide in symptoms. Matt Stang, co-founder and CEO of Delic, has pointed out how valuable psychedelic treatment is medicinally and financially:

“This promising family of new medicines has the potential to be more effective than traditional medicines with minimal side effects, giving people their best selves back. Our country’s mental health crisis not only impacts public health, but also the economy–each year, untreated mental illness costs the U.S. up to $300 billion in lost productivity” - Matt Stang, DelicCorp

Given that there is a slowly increasing demand for psychedelic treatment, how has the efficacy and safety of psilocybin been measured?

Psilocybin versus Escitalopram

One study into psilocybin was conducted at Imperial College London. Men and women between the ages of 18 and 80 years were formally recruited, except for those with a personal history of psychosis or other medically significant health conditions. The patients were separated into two groups: psilocybin and escitalopram (SSRI) recipients. On Visit 1, all patients underwent a functional MRI, completed cognitive processing tasks, and attended a preparatory therapeutic session. Visit 2 ensured that the psilocybin group received 25 mg of psilocybin, where the escitalopram group received 1 mg of psilocybin. The results, despite not demonstrating the full efficacy of psilocybin in treating depression, were still relevant in a field of extremely fertile and necessary research.

A Quick Inventory of Depressive Symptomology-Self Report (QIDS-SR-16) response occurred in 70% of patients in the psilocybin group compared to 48% of those in the escitalopram group. Moreover, the former group of patents reported greater perceived improvements in the ability to feel intense emotion and pleasure, suggesting that depressive symptoms were improved in those who underwent psychedelic treatment.

The Practicality of Psychedelic Treatment

There is a catch, though, on implementing mushrooms into mainstream antidepressant pharmaceuticals: they are highly restricted and criminalised in many countries. Although psilocybin is not considered addictive, per se, this class of mushroom has been assigned the same category as other narcotics with “a high potential for abuse”, like heroin. In the US, psilocybin is still considered a Schedule 1 drug and is therefore illegal. Conversely, the tide is beginning to turn. In 2019, psilocybin has been decriminalised in three locations: Denver, Oregon, and Santa Cruz. Psychedelic treatment is, moreover, becoming increasingly mainstream with the anaesthetic uses of ketamine. Delic even operates the largest chain of psychedelic mental health clinics in the US with 12 centres fully functioning today. As Dr Marcus Roggen, President and Chief Science Officer of Delic Labs, has concluded:

“In the area of medical developments, psilocybin and other plant-based compounds show great promise, but also have their limitations. With our medicinal chemistry expertise as the foundation, we will continue to explore these novel psychedelic compounds and other drug candidates with the goal of adding them to this exciting field of medicine” – Dr. Marcus Roggen, Forbes.

Mushrooms are certainly on the rise and multiple clinical studies have affirmed psilocybin’s efficacy in treatment-resistant depression. Perhaps, the medical sphere can take a more conscious approach to mental health and reframe fungi not as something to be feared, but as a resource to be utilised. Similar: Plants vs Pills: The Solution that Could Transform Health


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