Magic and medicine: on the medicinal potential of mushrooms

A few years ago I published an article titled Are Mushrooms Medicinal? in the newspaper Fungal biology, which was downloaded more than any previous article in the magazine’s history. Supportive e-mails came from fellow scientists, but a far greater number of messages questioned my intelligence and my motives. One reviewer asked: Did you even do a review on the subject before writing this article? and continued: You seem to be either willfully ignorant, intentionally misleading, or have an interesting point of view [sic] for what constitutes validity. My criteria [sic] that is, show me the evidence, which is encoded in the Hitchenss razor, or epistemological rule, of the late journalist Christopher Hitchens: What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

A search for shiitake combined separately with each of the following diseases and health conditions beginning with the letter a: acne, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, anthrax, arthritis, asthma, and autism. Shiitake is endorsed as a treatment for all of them. Choose a different font and see for yourself. Inspired by Mr. Hitchens, I offer my own razor: a supposed cure for everything is an effective treatment for nothing.

Belief in the baseless powers of medicinal mushrooms may also be reinforced by widespread skepticism toward medical authority.

By deifying shiitake and other species of fungi, medicinal mushroom wizards, champions of mushrooms, betray themselves as con artists to anyone willing to ask a few questions. Some of these latter-day shamans are deliberate tricksters, others don’t know any better, and I am aware that I am howling at the moon. Belief in the baseless powers of medicinal mushrooms may also be reinforced by widespread skepticism toward medical authority.

All of this is unfortunate for the study of mycology because mushrooms are probably full of undiscovered drugs that could be developed using modern pharmacological methods. Why then, one might ask, has there been such a rich history of drug discovery in plants, while most forest fungi have been ignored? Aspirin, ephedrine, opiates, and quinine were used by herbalists in the form of unrefined plant preparations for thousands of years before any attempt at purification. The historical success of these plant extracts in medicine advocates a similar impact of mushrooms, but confusion over their nature (these bastard plants, or growths) and toxicity (some are highly poisonous and full of poison) meant that were neglected by the elders. herbalists of Europe.

While mushroom medicine hasn’t gone anywhere, yeast used for brewing and baking has transformed the pharmaceutical industry as an infinitely flexible platform for drug production. Ordered to make human insulin using the human gene, the yeast complies and produces half of the global supply of injectable insulin to fight diabetes. Modified with a DNA sequence from the human papillomavirus (HPV), the yeast translates it into copies of the protein that forms the shell of the viral particle. Separated from the yeast, this protein is injected as an HPV vaccine, which has the potential to eliminate the form of cervical cancer linked to this infection.

Another medicine from genetically modified yeast is used to treat an age-related eye condition, and there is a lot of research into using yeast cells to synthesize pain relievers. When we consider mold antibiotics and all these drugs made by yeast, it is clear that fungi are an indispensable source of modern medicine. To add new fungal compounds to pharmacy, we need to bring mushroom chemistry into the mainstream.

Meanwhile, magic mushrooms light up the brain like fireflies in a meadow. Waves of nervous activity rise, grow, and dissolve from point to point through the brain, islands of impulses crackling here, dampening there, as consciousness is disconnected from the usual flow of information. Mushroom brainwaves are similar to those of vivid dreams, with the twist that temporarily disconnecting from everyday thought via the mushroom can have a lasting effect on our mindset when we reconnect. Anxiety and depression can lose some of their bite; life can seem less brutal. A mushroom dream is like a tropical island vacation or a canoe trip down a pristine river, with the surprising benefit that the peace found during the break stays with you when it’s over.

After decades of scientific neglect, psilocybin has become the subject of intensive research, and a broad consensus is emerging about some of the neurological processes that govern mushroom sleep. Electrical impulses are transmitted along neurons by the movement of charged atoms or ions across their membranes. When these signals reach the end of the cells, they cause the release of chemical neurotransmitters that stimulate or block the generation of new impulses in the next neurons in the circuit. Serotonin is one of the neurotransmitters that carry out this slower relay of sparks from cell to cell.

When we consume psilocybin, a chemical group that projects from the ring structure of this small molecule is cut off in the liver, producing psilocin. The structure of the psilocin molecule is so similar to serotonin that it disrupts the normal transmission of nerve impulses between cells. Serotonin has multiple functions in human physiology, ranging from controlling the unconscious process of digestion to the conscious emotion of happiness. If too much is released into the nervous system, the body responds with restlessness and muscle cramps; too little and we lose motivation and can descend into depression.

In the search for relief from depression and anxiety, it is helpful to consider why profound unhappiness is so common.

Physical symptoms produced by psilocybin use result from the stimulation and suppression of neural networks that normally respond to serotonin and include increased heart rate and blood pressure, sweating, muscle twitching, facial numbness, nausea , lack of coordination and headaches. These start about twenty minutes after eating the mushrooms, differ greatly from person to person and are usually mild. If we did not favor the stimulating psychological effects of psilocybin, these reactions would be seen as expressions of mushroom intoxication. Not on par with the death cap, of course, but poisoning nonetheless, which is why many mushroom guides post a skull and crossbones symbol next to entrances to Psilocybe species containing the drug.

The psychological effects of psilocybin are equally diverse. Certain brain circuits are activated and overloaded with information while other parts of the brain are pushed into a dreamlike state. These changes in brain activity are visualized in patients who have their heads inside the giant donut of an MRI machine or an MRI machine after consuming purified psilocybin. MRI experiments show an interaction between parts of the brain that normally work in isolation, a reduction in blood flow to areas involved in logical thinking, and an increase in nerve activity in the deeper parts of the brain that control our emotions

More often than not, our sense of individuality or ego dissolves, leading to impressions of harmony and kinship with the rest of nature. The ego is lost when psilocin interferes with a brain circuit called the default mode network, or DMN. The DMN is concentrated in the prefrontal cortex and connects to neuronal centers further back and deeper in the brain. Our sense of self is held in the DMN, and this is where the mushroom subverts our narcissistic programming.

Imagine you are a passenger on a cruise ship that hits an iceberg. In the seconds following the collision, normal activity in your DMN is suspended while other parts of the brain gather the information needed to figure out what happened and plan a response. You’re too frantic at the time to realize you’ve run to the deck wrapped in a towel and wearing a shower cap. The ego is gone, albeit temporarily.

Later, when it’s clear that the ship is sinking and the lifeboats have left without you, the DMN has the last word as you get in touch with your sense of self, remove your shower cap, and you are flooded with anxiety. Any sense of positivity would be welcome in this desperate situation, and this is where mushrooms can become our saviors. If you had swallowed a bag when the ship’s hull opened, the psilocin would have disengaged the DMN from the alarming messages flowing from elsewhere in the brain, pushing you into a dreamlike state and leaving you more philosophical about the prospect of cold water

The calming effect of magic mushrooms on the passengers of a sinking ship is a matter of conjecture, but there is plenty of evidence that psilocybin can reduce our fear in less dramatic situations. Several studies have shown that psilocybin is a useful treatment for clinical depression and can even promote a sense of well-being in terminally ill patients. In a 2016 trial at Johns Hopkins University, patients with life-threatening cancer diagnoses reported feelings of greater life satisfaction after receiving high doses of the drug. These improvements in attitude were maintained in 80 percent of participants six months after treatment.

In the search for relief from depression and anxiety, it is helpful to consider why profound unhappiness is so common. As imperfect products of evolution, there must be a natural imperative at work. Psychologists have wrestled with this question for decades, and while there isn’t a completely satisfactory answer, depression seems to arise from a combination of bad wiring and the cryptic advantages of caution, doubt, and sadness.

Bad wiring is connected between the most primitive lizard brain and the outermost cortex, where our consciousness and sense of self interact with the primal urges to feed, escape, attack and copulate. Mild depression can be helpful if it gives us a chance to ruminate on a problem and come up with a solution, but deep, unrelenting depression serves no purpose. In his study on depression titled The anatomy of melancholy, wrote Robert Burton (1577-1640), what cannot be cured must be endured. Mushrooms offer an alternative.


Text of Molds, mushrooms and medicine: our lifelong relationship with fungiby Nicholas P. Money. Copyright 2024 byPrincetonUniversity Press. Reprinted with permission fromPrincetonUniversity Press.

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