Science on psychedelic fungi is thawing after decades of prohibition. Here’s what we know so far.
They’ve been credited in part for the musical and artistic revolutions of the late 1960s. According to some scientific opinions, they have potentially inspired early creativity in humans and our ancient ancestors. Researchers have seen them pop up in the art of Maya, Mixtec and other cultures throughout ancient America and even in parts of the Old World, where they may have been used both spiritually and medicinally.
So-called “magic” mushrooms have been a source of both reverence and controversy, thanks to the psychotropic and hallucinogenic effects they cause when ingested. As a result of the controversy, though, the United States made these types of mushrooms illegal in 1970, and a number of other countries around the world followed suit. Due to the ban, few other natural substances known to carry such strong sensory and emotional effects are as poorly studied by scientists.
But a recent relaxing of this decades-old hardline stance has resulted in a flurry of new research that seeks to understand more about the evolution of these drugs, their ecology and their potential medical and therapeutic use. “Right now we are at the stage where we can ask the questions again,” says Tom Froese, an assistant professor of cognitive science at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan.
While most recreational mushroom use revolves around one species, Psilocybe cubensis, there are hundreds known in the Psilocybe genus, asserts Britt Bunyard, a mycologist and publisher of the magazine FUNGI. Nearly all of them contain the psychedelic compounds psilocybin, psilocin and baeocystin. These species are found on every continent other than Antarctica, and Froese says that new species are getting discovered all the time. The widespread distribution of the genus led Gaston Guzman, a Mexican mycologist and anthropologist (who studied magic mushrooms with Froese before his death in 2016) to hypothesize that they are likely old enough to have existed before Earth’s continents split up about 300 million years ago.
The mushrooms themselves convert tryptophan, an amino acid, into organic psychedelic compounds like psilocin. These compounds interact with serotonin receptors in the human brain, producing sensations of pleasure and hallucinations, says Nate Daniels, an assistant professor in pharmaceutical sciences at Lipscomb University in Tennessee.