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Harnessing The “Magic” Of Mushrooms For Mental Health Treatment

A new study maps the enzymes and genes of psilocybin, the primary hallucinogen in magic mushrooms, laying the groundwork for future mass-production.
Mushrooms

Scientists in Germany have isolated the enzymes necessary to produce psilocybin, the key hallucinogen in magic mushrooms. This knowledge lays the groundwork for scientists who envision mass production of the compound to treat a variety of mental health conditions.

Scientists map psilocybin

The study discovered the correct sequence for psilocybin beginning with a 4-hydroy-L-tryptophon molecule, then used a series of enzymes to strip off carbon dioxide molecules, and finally adding phosphorus and methyl groups. Typically, replicating fungi requires four steps—each requiring a different enzyme—but the study streamlined the process to require only three.

To learn the correct sequence of the enzymes, researchers mapped the genomes of two species of magic mushrooms: Psilocybe cubensis and Psilocybe cyanescens. After discovering which genes would produce the necessary enzymes, scientists spliced them into E. coli bacteria.

A 1968 study had attempted the same procedure, but placed the enzymes in the wrong order. In 1970, psilocybin was classified as a Schedule 1 drug of the Controlled Substances Act—the most severely criminalized category for drugs with a supposed “high potential for abuse” and no currently accepted medical use. However, evidence indicates that psilocybin fails to meet either of those qualifications. The classification occurred following the onset of hyper-sensational media stories that misattributed a number of harmful effects, including suicide, to psychedelic drugs. This put a 30-year halt to further research.

In recent years—hoping to prove psilocybin a viable treatment for mental illness—scientists have contended with piles of paperwork and bureaucracy to complete small studies where they struggle to obtain the necessary amounts of the drug.

Through mapping psilocybin, in the study published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, authors hope they can help move the process along.

“Given the renewed pharmaceutical interest in psilocybin, our results may lay the foundation for its biotechnological production,” writes lead author Janis Fricke.

This new study may, at last, provide the basis for a medical-grade psilocybin to treat various conditions.

Benefits of psilocybin

Before the ban in the 1970s, psilocybin was hailed by many in the medical and scientific community as a promising mental health treatment. Now, after a moratorium lasting decades, doctors, scientists, and mental health professionals alike believe the drug could be a viable tool in treating a wide variety of conditions including addiction, autism spectrum disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, depression, mood disorders and anxiety. And they are finding ways to prove it.

According to some studies, psilocybin does not treat mental health conditions simply by removing negative symptoms, but by creating some of the positive effects reported by the average person taking magic mushrooms—that is, creating a life-changing, transcendent experience.

For instance, in a Johns Hopkins study designed to test the drug’s effect on cessation of smoking—out of the 80 percent who stopped smoking for at least six months after using the drug three times—this so-called transcendent effect showed when that successful majority answered questions following the study.

More people in that group chose the following as the defining reason for their positive outcome: “by changing the way you orient yourself toward the future, such that you now act in your long-term holistic benefit, rather than acting in response to immediate desire.” The response chosen with highest frequency as most important was, “by changing the way you prioritize values in life, so that reasons to smoke no longer outweighed reasons to quit.”

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    Amy McElroy is a contributing editor and writer for Rewire Me. She has written for print, radio, and... keep reading