Psychedelics are a potentially life-changing treatment for patients with various mental health conditions such as treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Researchers began studying the effects of psilocybin in the early 2000s and are still unlocking the therapeutic applications of the psychedelic drug also known as psilocin.
Primarily, psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy involves using magic mushrooms to facilitate a psychedelic experience and then using traditional therapeutic techniques to help establish new behavioral patterns. As neuroscience evolves and the scientific understanding of psilocybin’s therapeutic effects improves, doctors have continued learning how a dose of psilocybin affects one’s brain cells.
Studies are ongoing, but this psychedelic compound helps the brain establish new connections and strengthens communication between neurons, improving neuroplasticity. Beyond this significant effect, researchers believe psilocybin may stimulate neurogenesis, the process of growing new brain cells.
While it is critical to acknowledge research into psilocybin and other classic psychedelics like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), MDMA, ketamine, ayahuasca, and DMT is still ongoing, the effects of psychedelics may improve the well-being of many with severe conditions that don’t respond to conventional psychiatry-related interventions. This article covers how microdosing psilocybin affects the brain, its treatment applications, and potential risks.
How Does Psilocybin Affect the Brain?
Psilocybin is chemically similar to serotonin, the neurotransmitter tied to positive emotions. The hormone influences memory, sleep, mood, and other body processes. Psilocybin binds to serotonin receptors, causing happiness or euphoria. The hallucinogen also slows the brain’s ability to parse and prioritize information, leading to the receptiveness associated with tripping.
The compound enhances neuroplasticity by spurring new connections between disparate regions of the brain and strengthening pre-existing ones. Researchers found that psilocybin promotes dendrite development on existing neurons, creating new avenues for connections. This rewiring process is vital to psilocybin’s therapeutic value. The growth leads to new synapses, which have implications for cognitive improvement.
In addition, researchers speculate that psilocybin can induce the growth of new cells in the hippocampus. While doctors continue uncovering the entire process, they hypothesize that psilocybin’s antidepressant effect partially comes from its ability to spur new cell growth and enhance existing cells that may be shrunken.
What Neurological Conditions Can Psilocybin Treat?
Neuroscientists believe neurogenesis is essential for learning, memory, and fighting depression. Cognitive function relies on the growth and health of brain cells. In low doses psilocybin can address many psychiatric disorders, but its most promising therapeutic application is for treating major depressive disorder. The treatment has profound and sustained benefits because it strengthens neuron connections by promoting new growth in existing cells.
Researchers also believe psilocybin may effectively treat epilepsy and other seizure-related conditions. While researchers are still uncovering the underlying neurological causes of epilepsy, studies are also assessing psilocybin’s ability to manage epileptic symptoms. Researchers speculate that the drug’s rewiring effect and the enhanced neural plasticity it engenders allow the brain to bypass the possible anatomical cause of the condition.
Researchers in the field of neuropsychopharmacology are also studying psilocybin as a treatment for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, and stroke. These conditions are debilitating and lack effective treatments.
While studies are in their earliest phases, researchers are exploring if the neurogenic potential of psilocybin can improve cognitive loss from degenerative conditions and injury. These effects will help patients cope by enhancing cognition and mood to improve their quality of life.
Neurological Risks of Using Psilocybin
Psilocybin is a non-toxic substance that the body can safely metabolize and remove. Widespread misinformation about “magic” mushrooms during the 1960s led to their prohibition, which halted all research into the effects and treatment potential of psilocybin until the 2000s.
The compound is non-addictive and not capable of causing fatal overdoses. While psychedelics are safe for most people, it’s possible that an individual’s biochemistry can render them ineffective. Psilocybin is not currently approved as a treatment for any condition. The compound should only be used therapeutically under the direction of a trained professional.
Doctors recommend that patients with a history of psychosis or conditions characterized by altered perceptions should avoid psychedelics like psilocybin. The risks of an adverse event or “bad” trip are much higher.
Clinically supervised use of psilocybin minimizes the risk of bad trips. These events result from anxiety and fear arising due to the altered state of perception. While not inherently dangerous, patients on bad trips may take risky actions in response to their hallucinations, inadvertently harming themselves or others.
How to Participate in Psilocybin Therapy
Currently, patients can visit and use psilocybin at treatment centers in Oregon. Colorado legalized psilocybin in November 2022 and is now establishing therapeutic protocols. For most Americans, the only legal way to undergo psilocybin therapy is by participating in a psilocybin clinical trial.
You can find nearby clinical trials using the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s searchable database. While psilocybin remains illegal in most of the country for personal use, many states permit research because of the treatment’s promise and the positive results of initial studies.
These trials involve patients with specific diagnoses receiving psilocybin therapy in a controlled environment. It’s critical to be open and honest when applying for studies to ensure you qualify. Asking about psilocybin, risks, and the scope of the trial will help you determine if you want to participate.
If selected, you will receive psilocybin therapy. Doctors then document and record your experience and response. You will likely attend follow-up visits to discuss the longer-term impacts of the treatment.
Researchers adhere to strict ethical standards and safety protocols. Your participation will help further the cause of psychedelic medicine and inform the ongoing evolution of the therapy in the minds of legislatures and society.
John DiBella is a medical marijuana advocate, owner of The Sanctuary Wellness Institute, and a writer. When he’s not writing blogs about medical marijuana, he enjoys hiking, camping and sailing.