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Two separate studies into the effects of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, showed that contrary to scientists’ expectations, it does not increase but rather suppresses activity in areas of the brain that are also dampened with other anti-depressant treatments.
"Psychedelics are thought of as ‘mind-expanding’ drugs so it has commonly been assumed that they work by increasing brain activity," said David Nutt of Imperial College London, who gave a briefing about the studies on Monday. "But, surprisingly, we found that psilocybin actually caused activity to decrease in areas that have the densest connections with other areas."
These so-called “hub” regions of the brain are known to play a role in constraining our experience of the world and keeping it orderly, he said.
"We now know that deactivating these regions leads to a state in which the world is experienced as strange."
In the first study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal, 30 volunteers had psilocybin infused into their blood while they were inside magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, which measure changes in brain activity.
It found activity decreased in “hub” regions and many volunteers described a feeling of the cogs being loosened and their sense of self being altered.
The second study, due to be published in the British Journal of Psychiatry on Thursday, involved 10 volunteers and found that psilocybin enhanced their recollections of personal memories.
Robin Carhart Harris from Imperial’s department of medicine, who worked on both studies, said the results suggest psilocybin could be useful as an adjunct to psychotherapy.
Nutt cautioned that the new research was very preliminary and involved only small numbers of people.
"We’re not saying go out there and eat magic mushrooms," he said. "But…this drug has such a fundamental impact on the brain that it’s got to be meaningful — it’s got to be telling us something about how the brain works. So we should be studying it and optimizing it if there’s a therapeutic benefit." +