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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Column: Trippy

Whenever there is a discussion on the use of psychedelic drugs, such as acid or psilocybin (mushrooms), for medical rather than recreational uses, two polarized opinions tend to appear. One group will always emphasize the dangers of these drugs: They may tell stories about people who had bad trips, or were arrested for acting oddly or violently in public. The other group will then comment on how research shows that these drugs have many medical benefits and few negative side effects. The first group may think that the second are drugged-out hippies or drug addicts trying to justify their habit. The second group may think that the first are parroting DARE propaganda without researching the true science of these compounds.

The truth? As unsatisfying as it is, it’s hard to say. There are interesting clues as well as contradictions. Recent research from London conducted functional MRIs on volunteers after they received an injection of psilocybin, the functional compound in “magic mushrooms,” and found that there were decreases in the activity of the parts of the brain that coordinate the flow of information through the brain, which the researchers said induced a state of “unconstrained cognition.”

However, researchers in Switzerland did similar research except they had the subjects eat the mushrooms and wait for effect onset. They had the exact opposite result from the team in London; those same areas of the brain were activated in their research, rather than reduced as in the London research.

Why would the same drug have the completely opposite effect? One of the obvious differences is that the London researchers injected the psilocybin, which produced an immediate but short “trip,” while the team in Switzerland used the much more common method of eating the mushrooms and waiting for the onset of the effects.
The two most important factors in figuring out the effect of a drug is in the dosage and the rate at which the body processes it. Psilocybin is relatively quickly converted by the body into its active form psilocin, which is what causes the trip. However, even if the absolute dosage of psilocybin is the same for both researchers, eating the mushrooms will cause the compound to be processed by the body much more slowly than injecting the drug. Not only could this change the effect itself, but the methods may also cause different levels of anxiety due both to using a needle and the fact that injecting the drug causes a virtually instant trip, rather than the much more gradual onset of eating the mushrooms.
The most commonly-used psychedelic drugs are psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD, aka acid) and mescaline. Psilocybin and mescaline occur naturally in certain species of mushrooms and cacti, respectively, while LSD is a synthetic drug derived from the fungus ergot. Though these compounds are produced in very different ways, they have similar effects: euphoria, changes in perception and visual and mental hallucinations.
There is a great deal of evidence that there are positive effects of these drugs; for example, psilocybin has been found to decrease symptoms of depression, cluster headaches, obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety related to terminal cancer. Reports of lethal doses of psilocybin are very rare and the overall toxicity of the drug is very low.
However, people unprepared for its effects can experience panic attacks or nausea. Those side effects may sound inconsequential to people who have never experienced a panic attack, but they pose a real danger to those prone to anxiety.
I do want everyone to understand that just like any other drug, whether it is legally prescribed, illegally obtained or found in nature, there are side effects and consequences. There’s a lot to criticize about the “War on Drugs,” but the legal inconsistencies have made the medical effects of these substances difficult to study reliably.
The unfortunate fact is that legality is rarely a good indicator of how dangerous it is; alcohol and cigarettes are both legal but cause an astonishingly high number of deaths. Legality is also a poor indicator of strength — possession of psilocybin-containing mushrooms is outlawed (with a few exceptions) while the much more intense substance salvia is still legal in most states. The bottom line here is to be careful of what you put in your body, no matter what it is.

AMY STEWART can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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