Brain Health,

#116: Psilocybin and the Potential for “Psychedelic Therapies”

February 19, 2016

From coyotes to university researchers to biohacking entrepreneurs, there is more and more study going on into the effects of psilocybin.

Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychoactive compound found in hallucinogenic mushrooms.  The mind-altering effects of ‘shrooms first gained counterculture notoriety during the 1960s, when they mushroomed in popularity (sorry, couldn’t resist) among recreational users. Recently, however, a quiet rebirth of scientific study into psychedelics is looking likely to add therapeutic legitimacy to the use of these chemicals.

In the United States, psilocybin is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act — meaning the compound has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.

But — leaving aside the very questionable fit of the “Schedule I” definition — there is increasing reason to believe that in the case of psilocybin, we may be throwing out a therapeutic baby with the recreational bathwater.

Tim Ferriss (of 4 Hour Work Week fame) has recently picked up the advocacy torch to lead the way toward legitimizing therapeutic and medical use of psilocybin.  His Crowdrise campaign has brought media attention to the topic.

So What Makes Psilocybin So Special?

Over the past decade-plus, members of the scientific and medical communities have been quietly re-initiating research into the use of psilocybin as a viable treatment for maladies ranging from depression and to addiction.

In Episode #116, Jesse speaks with Dr. Frederick Barrett, a brain-imaging specialist on a research team led by Dr. Roland Griffiths at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Their next project: A pilot study using psilocybin to address treatment-resistant depression.

Properly administered under the supervision of a psychologist “guide,” there is reason to believe the visionary experiences of psilocybin could be a real therapeutic game-changer. Psychedelics have a deserved reputation as a double-edged sword that can be extremely anxiety-provoking (as well as euphoria-inducing). But one thing everyone agrees on is that they are potent. Correctly harnessed, these could be powerful tools.

Findings indicate that psilocybin provides long-term positive effects on mood, emotional functioning, and well-being.  But maybe most notable is that only a limited treatment of psilocybin is needed to achieve long-lasting benefits — no one would be taking daily psychedelic trips to keep depression at bay, analogous to the treatment schedule with current anti-depression medications.

Listen in for the details.  Like, what exactly defines a “mystical experience,” and how common are they?  How much psilocybin are we talking about to reliably produce these effects? And will pharmaceutical companies be likely to invest in psilocybin?

It’s fascinating stuff.  And who knows?  With time, funding and research, psychedelics — psilocybin in particular — may one day share pharmacy space with the vast array of SSRIs currently on offer.

A heartfelt note of thanks to the entire Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Research Project study team for giving us a peek into their past, current and upcoming research.

A note for our UK-based listeners: Please sign & share this petition to try and help secure the future of nootropics in the UK. (The petition can only be signed by those in the UK, or with UK Citizenship.)

Links you’ll want to click…

To help fund the research for the treatment of major depression through Crowdrise.

To learn more about the psilocybin research that’s been done at John Hopkins University.

To learn about the mediation study mentioned by Dr. Barrett.

To read about Dr. Matthew Johnson’s Pilot Study on psilocybin in the treatment of tobacco addiction.

To see some of the surveys mentioned by Dr. Barrett in the interview, click here, here, and here.

PS:  Looking for another great way to expand your mind? Sign up for our Brain Breakfast newsletter below!


  1. Nathan says:

    I’d like to mention that Vice made a documentary on an individual who has been curing his chronic migraine pain with psilocybin. He was told that there is no medication that can manage migraine pain. However, after taking psilocybin he is migraine free for 3 months after each dose. Hope you find it interesting

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Thanks for the tip, Nathan. The long-lasting efficacy in some of these small studies is *really* tantalizing. I wonder what made this guy think to try psilocybin for migraine management in the first place? Guess I’ll need to try to find the documentary. 🙂

  2. Paul says:

    Just a personal anecdote. I sought out psilocybin mushrooms for depression and anxiety and found that it has helped immensely. I have only taken them once, 3.5 grams, about six months ago but have found that i am consistently happier and less anxious since. Also on Nathans note, as a side effect I haven’t had a migraine since. Interesting stuff.

  3. Michelle Silbernagel says:

    Glad you have found benefit, Paul and Nathan, with the headaches. It’s interesting, as I’ve seen research indicating that some find headache relief from using psilocybin, while others actually have experienced headaches, though of short duration. Check these studies out:
    Psilocybin dose-dependently causes delayed, transient headaches in healthy volunteers
    Response of clusterheadache topsilocybin and LSD

  4. Nathan says:

    Thank you so much for replying me so quickly Jesse! I am a 22 year old IT professional who is just beginning his journey in life. So, this is a first for me and you made my day :). It has been about a year since I have seen the documentary, but if I find time to look for it, I’ll be sure to send you the link. While I have your attention, I would really appreciate an app to view your weekly newsletter as I don’t like to clutter my email too much or I end up reading none of it.

    Wow, that is incredible Michelle. This is the first time I am hearing that psilocybin caused headaches. Just goes to show that the current dose model is not entirely accurate. I’d like to wonder if the headaches may be caused by certain personal experiences. It is not uncommon to experience headaches from stress. Psilocybin can easily make your mind relive incredibly extreme emotional experiences. This is just a thought experiment, but I’d like to hypothesize that an increase in psilocybin dose would equal an increase in emotional experience. Rather than finding the physical outcome of a dose; we might be able to more closely model the response of psilocybin with the emotional outcome. Perhaps, one day we can precisely upload all of our neurons into a processor and objectively measure these responses. The brain is incredibly adaptive and does more than seek purely material-objective goals. I believe the deeper we go into our subjective brains, the more subjective the outcomes will be. Something I heard on your podcast Jesse: “See one brain; see one brain”

    I am so glad to have found this website. Thank you all for provoking some of the most interesting thoughts I have ever experienced!

  5. Darryn says:

    He there, with regard to your question about self-medication, I, was a struggling heroin and crack addict who was roaming the street, about 14 years back. Inadvertently, I wound up psilocybin contain mushrooms with getting high as the sole prerogative. Not long after the usage of psilocybin I was clean and have remained clean for over 14 yrs. The mystical experience for me was key in my healing. Hence my deep interest in plants and alkaloids. These plant taught me deep spiritual and physical lessons, such as yoga and breathing techniques, as if to remind me how to revitalize all the individual cells in my body. The things I have seen I won’t bother sharing, you would likely not be able to understand, and in any event each individuals experience is as unique as a fingerprint just as perception in reality. Without psilocybin and entheogenic plants I may have lost my life. And to round my opinion up, I think shamanism is the key word in this factor not pharmacology, it is a paradoxical, as Rick Strauss called, DMT “the spirit molecule, it is also interesting to note that the molecular structure of the 2 drugs is almost identical with the exception that psilocybin has structure which allows it to pass through the blood brain barrier without the assistance of MAOI, which inhibit the breakdown of DMT in the metabolization process. All that being said these are just my opinions.  Thank you Jess for an awesome podcast, many blessings brother, Booohm from Transkei South Africa

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Hi Darryn — Thanks so much for your comment. The interviewer in me is tempted to follow up with a half-dozen or more questions, but this comment-thread is probably not the right venue. I may reach out to you on email when/if we do a follow-up episode to hear more about your story, if you’d be willing.

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