USF researchers find magic mushrooms may help with PTSD

Magic mushrooms, those cultural symbols of trippy hippie awareness, may be in for a new reputation.

Researchers from the University of South Florida have discovered that low doses of the psychedelic drug may help treat people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and addictions. It was a shroomy, serendipitous discovery they didn’t set out to find.

It started with psilocybin, the psychedelic ingredient found in certain mushrooms. Juan Sanchez-Ramos, a professor of neurology at USF, wanted to see how the substance affected short-term memory and learning. Sanchez-Ramos and his colleagues thought it might speed learning, maybe one day helping people who, for instance, had lost cognitive function to chemotherapy.

Enter the mice.

Researchers played a tone, followed by silence, before giving the mice a mild shock akin to static electricity. The mice linked the sound with the shock, freezing whenever they heard it. The substance made no difference in how quickly the mice learned to fear the sound. But it did do something else.

When researchers played the sound but didn’t shock the mice, the mice on mushrooms stopped being afraid of the sound much faster than the mice in the control groups.

One possible conclusion? Psilocybin or a similar substance in the right dosages could potentially help someone dealing with anxiety or addictions. It could have potential to lessen the suffering of, say, a soldier who associated loud noises with the trauma of war. Or a drug addict tempted to use when returning to the place where he used before.

The study was published online in June’s Experimental Brain Research, after the information had sat as one part of the original study for some time.

The larger story here, Sanchez-Ramos said, is that psychedelic drugs deserve to be studied in labs. Hallucinogens have been used for centuries in religious ceremonies, for people trying to become one with nature and have heightened awareness of surroundings, but doctors say they don’t necessarily cause hallucinations in low to moderate doses.

In fact, researchers have a new interest in exploring how things like magic mushrooms, ecstasy and other psychedelic drugs might benefit patients. Such drugs were once in development to treat alcoholism and drug dependency, said Sanchez-Ramos, even as tools in marriage counseling.

“As a society, we’re starting to reevaluate our attitude toward these drugs that have been banned,” he said. “There was a lot of really exciting research going on from 1950 to 1970 on the use of psychedelic drugs.”

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