Magic Mushrooms: How They Affect the Brain’s Emotion Centres

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Could psilocybin one day be used as an effective anti-depressant?

Swiss researchers have shown that psilocybin, the bioactive component in ‘magic mushrooms’, influences the emotional centres of the brain, weakening the effect of negative emotions.

The hallucinogen has long been advocated by some as a treatment for various mental disorders, and this new study provides evidence of how it might work.

In the study, 25 healthy participants were given a moderate dose of psilocybin before having their brains scans (Krähenmann et al., 2014).

Inside the scanner, and with the hallucinogen acting on their brains, participants were shown pictures which are designed to elicit an emotional reaction.

The results of this test were compared with scans taken after a placebo was administered.

The study’s lead author, Rainer Krähenmann, said:

“Even a moderate dose of psilocybin weakens the processing of negative stimuli by modifying amygdala activity in the limbic system as well as in other associated brain regions.”

The limbic system is vital to how we process emotions as well as memories. The amygdala is part of the limbic system and has also been shown to be vital in how we process emotions.

In the study, people’s amygdalas were markedly less reactive to negative stimuli after they had taken psilocybin, compared with the placebo-control condition.

Not only that, but psilocybin put people in a much better mood.

This backs up recent evidence about the dual effects of the drug in decreasing negative emotions and increasing positive emotions:

“…support for the notion that psilocybin may have rapid antidepressant characteristics also comes from a recent clinical trial showing that in patients with depression and anxiety, a single dose of psilocybin improved mood and decreased anxiety for several months.” (Krähenmann et al., 2014).

That said, the effects of psilocybin on depression have not yet been clinically tested.

Image credit: Sasata

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 11 May 2014

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