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The power of magic mushrooms

by AprilSix Proof


Yesterday was not a usual day at the office. On my final Thursday as the Intern for AprilSix Proof, I was fortunate enough to go on a one-woman mission and attend the wildly popular New Scientist Live event, held at the ExCel Centre in East London. Much like what we do at AprilSix Proof, events like New Scientist Live serve the purpose to communicate complex science and technology to the wider public. This time however, instead of being the communicator, I became the person being communicated to.

The exhibition hall was big and vibrant. Surrounded by the newest technologies such as virtual reality and 3D printing, I walked my way through the different stands, all of which were sectioned into five major zones: Cosmos, Earth, Humans, Technology and Engineering. I went from seeing the latest Aston Martin models, to speaking about astrophysics with AWE, and conquering my fear of bugs at the Rent a Beast stand. The talks, also split into the respective zones, were equally as captivating – covering a broad range of topics such as: what life would be like on Mars, whether there is a cure for ageing and whether it was plausible to engineer our way out of climate change.

One talk, however, stood out. Set on the Humans stage, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris research fellow at Imperial College, presented his latest findings on how psychedelic could be the next big thing that helps manage or even cure major depression.

The word psychedelic stems from the combination of two Greek words: “psyche” (mind) and “delos” (manifesting) – meaning to manifest the mind or reveal the soul, and when used correctly and within a safe context (outside of recreational use) – they are said to offer one of the most profound experiences of one’s life, matching life-changing events such as near-death experiences, falling in love or bringing in life. So how do they work?

Conventionally, the brain’s communication pathways are clear, conservative and specialised. On psychedelics however, the conversation between the communication pathways in our brain is freer and unanchored to our senses. They break down the integrity of the network i.e. what the person knows to be true, to a more basic and hyperactive state, comparable to how the mind works in a dream state. It is often reported that people experience a sense of dissolution, where the story they tell themselves about who they are breaks down right before their eyes.

Dr Carhart-Harris’s research focuses on the application of these psychedelics. In his study, he found that magic mushrooms or psilocybin, have the therapeutic potential to cure or help manage major depression. In his carefully set-up experiment, Dr Carhart-Harris worked with patients who proved resistant to other treatments. After every session, each patient was carefully followed-up by experienced therapists for a duration of six months. The effects of the treatment were immediate. Patients reported fewer signs of depression such as negative talk, and some even went into remission after a three-month follow-up. Those who relapsed reported that they went out to seek available treatments, since they could not obtain psilocybin legally.

Dr Carhart findings offers an important and controversial insight on the human brain, that could have the potential to help treat 350 million people worldwide.

By Justine Fowler.

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