Psilocybin Chemical Structure

Psilocybin Chemical Structure


Psilocybin is the active compound in “magic mushrooms” that induces the hallucinations and transcendental associated with psychedelics. Scientists’ understanding of psilocybin’s chemical structure and its effects on the body has grown rapidly in the last 20 years as researchers have sought to unlock its applications.

This knowledge, combined with advances in neuroscience, has informed psilocybin therapy, a revolutionary branch of psychology that leverages the effects of psilocybin with conventional therapeutic protocols to treat a variety of conditions. As researchers discover more about the compound’s chemical composition, they’ve gained deeper insights into how it interacts with the brain.

Learning as much as possible about psilocybin today will help you make the best decisions for your health in the future as access to psilocybin spreads across the nation. This article covers what psilocybin is, how it affects the brain, its benefits, its risks, and more.

What is Psilocybin?

While psilocybin is widely considered a psychedelic compound, this oversimplifies its chemical nature. Psilocybin is a prodrug of psilocin. Some of the most popular mushroom species that fall under the genus Psilocybe include psilocybe semilanceata, psilocybe mexicana, and psilocybe cubensis.

When people consume psilocybin, it undergoes a chemical transformation called dephosphorylation during digestion. The process creates psilocin by removing the phosphate groups from psilocybin. Psilocin is a psychoactive compound that enters the bloodstream and reaches the brain before inducing hallucinogenic effects.

Hallucinogenic mushrooms have trace amounts of psilocin but primarily contain psilocybin. The hallucinogenic compound is non-toxic to humans. While excessive doses can produce adverse effects, you cannot fatally overdose on psilocybe mushrooms (just as it’s exceedingly rare to overdose on other controlled substances like cannabis, DMT, mescaline, or LSD). The body effectively metabolizes psilocybin and expels it through urine.

Psilocybin and psilocin are tryptamine alkaloids that are molecularly similar to serotonin. Interestingly, psilocin is a highly unstable molecule. As a result, scientists cannot synthesize it for direct administration. Patients must ingest psilocybin and allow their bodies to convert the compound.

How Does Psilocybin Affect the Brain?

Psilocin can cross the blood-brain barrier because it is lipid soluble. Once in the brain, the compound binds to the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor. As a result, it mimics many of the “feel good” hormone’s effects, causing uplifting or euphoric sensations.

Research shows that psilocin is present in the blood 20 to 40 minutes after ingestion of psilocybin. The levels max out between 80 and 105 minutes after consumption. When psilocybin enters the brain, it depresses function in the prefrontal cortex, where information is sorted and prioritized. This slowdown leads to the connectedness and expansive ideas people experience while “tripping.”

Individuals often report enhanced creativity or transcendental thoughts during this state. Used therapeutically, providers can guide people to new ideas and behavioral patterns by administering talk therapy and other techniques.

One of the most therapeutically significant ways psilocybin affects the brain is by spurring new connections and pathways. Researchers continue to uncover the full extent of these processes, but they know that psilocybin “rewires” the brain. Scans show communication between disparate areas of the brain and the formation of new pathways. This effect enables the brain to bypass damaged connections and forge new ones.

Benefits of Using Psilocybin

The most promising benefit of psilocybin is as an intervention for treatment-resistant depression. Researchers have noted significant and sustained symptom improvement with psilocybin therapy. Many patients have switched from traditional psychopharmacology products like opioids to psychedelics. Psilocybin is likely to be the first psychedelic treatment to receive Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

The therapy is also effective at treating many other mental health conditions. Studies of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia nervosa, and other compulsive behaviors have shown promise. The treatment helps patients establish new behavior patterns and thoughts.

The rewiring function of psilocybin also helps patients with alcohol and substance use disorders. Studies have shown psilocybin is effective for smoking cessation thanks to its ability to establish new behaviors.

Doctors are also confident in psilocybin-containing mushrooms’ ability to help patients with epilepsy and migraines. Research is ongoing, but the mushrooms’ psychedelic effects seem to help reroute neural pathways, bypassing anatomical triggers that may lead to seizures and headaches.

The use of psilocybin is also a promising intervention for degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as traumatic brain injuries. While psilocybin helps patients cope with depression, anxiety, and mood changes resulting from their condition, it may also induce neurogenesis to combat the progression of the underlying cause.

Risks of Using Psilocybin

The most significant risk of psilocybin use is a bad trip. These situations occur when patients experience distress and anxiety due to their hallucinations. The unease often stems from discomfort with their environment. Bad trips associated with recreational drug use can lead to unintentional self-harm or risky actions taken in response to altered perceptions.

In a clinical setting where hallucinogenic drugs are used, psychotherapy providers minimize the risk factors for bad trips. They administer psilocybin and treat patients in secure and comfortable environments. The provider is present throughout the psychedelic journey to support the patient and bring them back to reality if they experience fear or anxiety.

Psilocybin can also raise heart rate and blood pressure, but only temporarily. Some patients also experience nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. While psilocybin is safe for consumption and easy to metabolize, providers advise patients with a history of psychosis to avoid the treatment. The hallucinations can trigger distress and extreme distortions of reality. Such patients can also experience disquieting flashbacks of their bad trips long after undergoing them for the first time.

How to Participate in Psilocybin Therapy

Psilocybin remains federally prohibited. Possession and use are legal in Colorado and Oregon and decriminalized in several cities. As of February 2023, Oregon is the only state with operational psilocybin treatment centers. Even if you live in one of these other communities, the safest way to use psilocybin is by participating in a clinical trial.

These studies involve administering psilocybin therapy and documenting the patients’ responses. Clinical trials are vital toward refining the treatment, legalizing psilocybin, and obtaining FDA approval. States and academic institutions tightly regulate studies to protect patients and maximize safety.

You can find open clinical trials using the National Institutes of Health (NIH) database. Many states permit psilocybin therapy for research purposes. Each study has specific enrollment criteria. Those who qualify receive psilocybin therapy under supervision and likely have follow-up visits to document their experiences.