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A Look Inside a Brain on Magic Mushrooms

Does a brain on magic mushrooms look the same as one having a dream? That’s the conclusion of a study of 15 volunteers published this week in the journal Human Brain Mapping.

Researchers at Imperial College in London gave psilocybin, the psychedelic chemical in magic mushrooms, to the volunteers and then measured their brain activity using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scanner. Scientists at Goethe University in Germany participated in the analysis.

They found that activity in the hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex, areas linked to emotional thinking, became more pronounced and appeared to be working together in a manner similar to the brain of a person dreaming. Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, a leading expert in psychedelic research at Imperial College, was not surprised at the similarity.

People often describe taking psilocybin as producing a dreamlike state and our findings have, for the first time, provided a physical representation for the experience in the brain.

Brain scans from the psilocybin study.

Brain scans from the psilocybin study.

The scans also found disjointed and uncoordinated activity in the brain network linked to high-level thinking and self-consciousness. This could be linked to the mind expansion, emotional insight and creative thinking experienced by psilocybin users, says Dr. Carhart-Harris.

There may be something in the loosening of the mind that occurs both in dreaming and in the psychedelic state that could be useful in terms of facilitating creative insight. There’s a fluidity and fluency to cognition. Only now are we forming ideas about what that might rest on in terms of changes in brain activity.

The study also found that the regions of the brain that show reduced activity under psilocybin are the same areas that are overactive in depression. The researchers plan further tests to determine if mushrooms can be used as an alternative treatment for depression.

As always, it’s important to remember that these studies were conducted on healthy users in a controlled environment. However, it’s exciting that the potential of mushrooms continues to be confirmed with scientific research.

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  • DonKrieger

    First, here is a link to the full text of the article:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hbm.22562/pdf

    There are several important details which limit the interpretation of the results of the study.

    (1) The drug was infused intra-venously. The drug itself is therefore certainly different both in content and in route of administration from mushrooms that are eaten.

    (2) Each of the volunteers had taken psylocibin before. The average number of times was 16 previous times with standard deviation of 27. This large standard deviation means that some of the volunteers had taken the drug many times many times.

    (3) The functional imaging measures were obtained using function MRI. The resultant so-called BOLD response is a measure of local tissue oxygenation. This is a physiological rather than a neural measure, although there is certainly a relationship. The key problem with it for many brain imaging studies is that the tissue oxygenation changes relatively slowly, over the course of many seconds. This slow time course contrasts sharply with sub-second time course of our thinking process and the presumed underlying neuroelectric brain activity.

    (4) The slow time course of the BOLD response makes “connectivity” results difficult to interpret in terms of brain activity.

    The bottom line on the study is: (1) A rather high dose of a known hallucinogenic drug was administered IV to volunteers who may be particularly sensitive to it, either naturally or due to sensitization from previous exposures. (2) There were measurable effects in recordings from brain tissue reflecting changes in blood oxygenation. (3) These changes were localized to areas of significant interest.