Can ‘magic’ mushrooms ease the pain of rejection?

Psilocybe semilanceata, a source of the hallucinogenic psilocybin. (Alan Rockefeller via Mushroom Observer, Creative Commons)

Hallucinogenic drugs obviously have their supporters: Just look to the 1970s. But a growing body of research suggests that these kinds of drugs might do some actual good, especially for those suffering from depression or anxiety. The latest study to test psilocybin — the psychedelic compound that gives so-called “magic mushrooms” their kick — indicates that it might dull the negative effects of being excluded from social situations.

The results, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, don’t necessarily mean you should fight off FOMO with a hallucinogenic trip. But they could help researchers develop new therapies for social anxiety.

Psilocybin is actually being used in several clinical trials, so it could indeed be used to treat depression in the near future. Lead researcher Katrin Preller of the University Hospital of Psychiatry Zurich explained that psilocybin has much more specific targets than antidepressants currently on the market: It pretty much targets only two specific brain receptors. That makes it easier to get a handle on how it works and who it should help, at least in theory.

It also means that scientists can use it to see how those specific brain receptors change behavior.

Preller and her colleagues wanted to see what the psilocybin-associated receptors could do for something called “social pain,” which is exactly what it sounds like — the pain associated with rejection. They triggered it in their 21 study subjects by creating a computer game where a virtual game of catch was played with two other players who increasingly excluded them from the activity. Meanwhile, subjects’ brain activity was being scanned.

The study subjects played this game under the influence of either a small dose of psilocybin or a placebo pill, then filled out a survey. Their responses showed that they were aware of being excluded on both occasions — they weren’t too high to notice that the ball wasn’t coming their way. But when they took the psilocybin, in addition to an increased sense of “unity” commonly reported in hallucinogenic trials, they indicated fewer signs of social pain.

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SOURCE: Washington Post