Exploring the medicinal side of magic mushrooms
Amid the institutional labs, offices and classrooms of Rennebohm Hall, home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Pharmacy, lies a room with an oversized sofa, nature scenes on the walls, a chime and drum on an inlaid table and meditative music floating from overhead speakers.
Inside, people are taking psilocybin, the hallucinogenic ingredient found in “magic mushrooms.”
They’re not only hoping for a “good trip.” They’re helping scientists study the potential of psilocybin to ease the minds of patients with advanced cancer and other emotionally devastating conditions.
Nearly 50 years after the late Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary advised people to “turn on, tune in, drop out” with psilocybin, LSD and other psychedelic drugs— which became illegal in 1970—researchers around the country are testing those substances’ ability to reduce anxiety and depression in patients with terminal cancer. They’re also studying their usefulness in treating addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Psilocybin, known as an “entheogen” for its centuries-old use in religious ceremonies, acts on specific brain receptors to change perception and cognition, scientists say.
Some cancer patients facing death are able to define their personal legacy and reconcile with estranged loved ones, but for many, that process is difficult, even with counseling, said Dr. Toby Campbell, an oncologist at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center who specializes in end-of-life care.
“Psilocybin seems to help significantly more people get to that magic place where they find peace,” Campbell told the Wisconsin State Journal.
In the UW-Madison study, a dozen healthy volunteers are taking psilocybin in escalating doses over several months. Scientists are measuring the electrical activity of participants’ hearts and testing their blood and urine to see how they metabolize the drug. The research, combined with recent studies of psilocybin in cancer patients at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and New York University, could pave the way for a large trial with cancer patients.