The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Why Conn. formed task force to study ‘magic mushrooms’

Experts, lawmakers want to examine possible benefits of psilocybin

- By Jordan Fenster

Without much fanfare, a bill was passed this year creating a state task force to study the benefits of psilocybin, the psychoacti­ve substance in so-called “magic” mushrooms.

“I actually introduced this a couple years ago,” said state Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden. “I introduced it again this year and it had legs.”

Elliott’s ultimate goal is legalizati­on of psilocybin, and though he said “a task force is a fairly low barrier to entry,” he said it’s a positive first step.

“As a singular legislator I’d prefer legalizati­on and regulation, but if it were to end up as decriminal­ization, I would be happy,” he said.

The 19-member task force — which

includes several state legislator­s, academic researcher­s and clinicians from Yale, the University of Connecticu­t and Midstate Medical Center, and representa­tives from several state agencies — is due to release its findings and recommenda­tions in January.

Research begins again

Alex Kwan, associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, gives psilocybin to mice. He said his research has shown that psilocybin can actually create neural connection­s.

“The major finding that we have recently is that, when we give a mouse a single dose of psilocybin, we see that they have more neural connection­s in the brain — about 10 percent more — and that these increases can last for up to one month in the mouse brain, which was quite long lasting,” he said.

Kwan is among many researcher­s beginning to study the benefits of psychedeli­cs for use in fighting depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mood disorders — studies that started decades ago.

“All research halted for 30 years, and then it slowly came back,” Kwan said. “Meanwhile, how we do research has advanced tremendous­ly in terms of the experiment­al design and the tools and everything.”

One barrier to that research has been the federal designatio­n of psilocybin as a Schedule 1 drug, which the Drug Enforcemen­t Agency describes as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Cocaine, methamphet­amine and methadone are considered Schedule 2 drugs.

“I think it's 1970 when the classifica­tions came out,” said Kristin Waters, a pharmacist and professor at UConn who has studied the effect of hallucinog­enic substances on mood disorders. “Because of that, in 1970, pretty much everything stopped.”

Funding to study the value of psilocybin from the National Institutes of Health, Kwan said, has been almost impossible to obtain.

“For a long time, the NIH hasn't been funding psilocybin work, because this is a Schedule 1 substance,” he said. “It doesn't fit with the health mission of the agency. So that's actually one difficulty in studying, is a lot of the interest comes from either philanthro­py or commercial interests.”

Psilocybin vs. Lexapro

It’s that renewed academic interest in the value of psilocybin for medical use that allowed Elliott to get a task force signed into law.

“We’re at a turning point now where institutio­ns of higher learning have been directing their focus again on the med benefits of psilocybin,” he said. “The jury’s no longer out.”

Kwan explained that a person’s brain experienci­ng depression goes through a “loss of synapse.” When you are depressed, “there is just this structural atrophy. As you get depression, you lose these connection­s,” Kwan said.

So psilocybin might actually help regrow some of those synapses, potentiall­y improving symptoms of depression. Though there are people who anecdotall­y extol the value of “micro-dosing,” taking too small a dose to experience any effects, Kwan said it seems that hallucinat­ion may be a part of it.

“That's a major debate right now in the field. That there are basically two camps,” Kwan said. “One is that the subjective experience is necessary for the therapeuti­c effects, and there has been some clinical studies supporting that.”

Then there are the largely commercial interests, who want to reap and bottle the benefits without the experience: “There are also other people that think that maybe it's not, maybe a lot of what the drug does is biological, and maybe you can take away the trip.”

Kwan’s mice, though, they trip out.

“We are using a dose that we consider to be hallucinog­enic,” he said. “There's just not a whole lot of clinical evidence that micro dosing does anything good.”

Waters said so far studies have shown it to be at least as effective as Lexapro, a drug commonly prescribed for depression.

“They basically found no statistica­l difference between the two,” she said. “So it's not saying, ‘Oh, psilocybin is this amazing thing,’ but if it's as good as the best thing we have, then I feel like that is definitely meaningful.”

Both drugs act on serotonin, the hormone in your body that creates feelings of happiness and contentmen­t.

“There were difference­s between the people who got psilocybin compared to who got Lexapro,” Waters said. “In the psilocybin group, they had more of a response in their amygdala to emotion. They were still having a full range of emotion, so it was definitely acting in a different mechanism from the Lexapro.”

Waters said it’s possible patients might be prescribed psilocybin within a decade. There are studies already nearing the final stages of research, she said.

“I'm wondering if we're going to have a niche with treatment-resistant depression,” she said. “Maybe for somebody who has tried multiple different SSRIs, like Lexapro, or like Prozac, all the common ones.”

That, Kwan and Waters said, is exciting.

“For psychiatry specifical­ly, there's a lot of excitement, mostly because there just hasn't been a drug for depression for a long time, for about 20 years,” Kwan said.

Recreation­al interest

There has been, simultaneo­usly, a growing cultural interest in psilocybin. Bill Yule, a Connecticu­t-based mushroom expert and wild mushroom forager said “there’s “an entire subculture of people growing psilocybin in their basements.”

“My perception is that it's all over the country,” he said. “Because of the sudden new interest in using those kinds of drugs for legitimate therapies and to chase mystical insight, I think young people are growing it.”

According to Yule, psilocybin­laden mushrooms are not particular­ly difficult to grow: “Most kids who have passed high school chemistry, they could do it in their parents’ basement or their dorm room.”

“It’s under the radar for the most part, but it’s happening everywhere I go,” he said.

Theoretica­lly, the spores, which Yule said, “are the reproducti­ve unit of the fungus,” can be bought through the mail.

“If you want to grow psilocybin, you just order your spores through the mail. And it's legal because there’s no psilocybin in the spores,” he said. “The outside world thinks that it’s difficult to do and it’s dangerous. It’s nowhere near as difficult or as dangerous as you might imagine.”

You can even find “magic mushrooms” growing wild in Connecticu­t, though they’re not very common.

“Wild psilocybin species, there are probably only two or possibly three that grow in the wild in Connecticu­t,” Yule said. “These are tropical mushrooms. The farther south you go, the more common it is to find wild psilocybin mushrooms.”

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