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UC Berkeley Launches Landmark Study: How Exactly Do Magic Mushrooms Alter the Brain?

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UC Berkeley's first human study of psilocybin, a Schedule 1 drug, marks a pivotal moment in the growing movement to use psychedelics for medical purposes. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Updated 3 p.m. Tuesday

Amid mounting efforts to legalize psychedelic drugs, UC Berkeley researchers will use neuroimaging to observe how psilocybin alters the brain — the university’s first human study involving a Schedule 1 substance.

While previous research has predominantly focused on the drug’s influence on clinical symptoms or human behavior, this study aims to uncover how the brain constructs reality under the influence of psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms.

Healthy participants will ingest psilocybin and then perform simple perceptual tasks while activity in the part of the brain that processes visual information is recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.


“We have this incredible opportunity to characterize the psychedelic experience in real-time — while it’s happening — using modern neuroimaging methods,” Michael Silver, the director of the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics and the study’s lead investigator, said in a recent university press release. “Understanding the actions of psychedelics at a neuroscientific level will generate insights into how they’re working as medicines and will hopefully help us develop more effective treatments for mental health disorders.”

A growing body of research suggests psilocybin, when administered in controlled conditions with supportive therapy, is a promising treatment for psychiatric disorders such as addiction and anxiety. Individuals suffering from long-term, debilitating depression have reported significant relief after a single session of psychedelic-assisted therapy.

Still, several recent attempts to reintroduce banned drugs into medical practice have hit roadblocks. Earlier this year, SB 1012, a bill championed by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) to legalize psychedelic-assisted therapy, failed to advance to a full Senate vote. The Senate analysis indicated “unknown significant ongoing costs, likely ranging in the low millions of dollars,” a daunting prospect given the state’s projected $56 billion budget deficit.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill to decriminalize the possession and personal use of hallucinogenic drugs, citing the need for more rigorous guidelines to ensure safe use. Similarly, this spring, federal health advisors decisively rejected MDMA-aided therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder in a 10-1 vote, citing flawed study data, questionable research practices and significant drug risks, including potential heart complications.

Despite these setbacks, advocates remain undeterred, pushing for more targeted initiatives. State Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones (R-San Diego) and Sen. Josh Becker (D-Menlo Park) have introduced legislation for a three-year psychedelic therapy pilot program in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and San Diego counties, focusing on veterans and first responders.

“To be clear, I’m not calling for the widespread legalization of psychedelic drugs. Rather, I’m championing a targeted medical treatment aimed specifically at aiding veterans and first responders in their recovery,” Jones said in a statement.

Psilocybin, belonging to the same class of psychedelics as LSD and mescaline, activates serotonin receptors, particularly in the prefrontal cortex. Its effects can include euphoria and hallucinations, spiritual experiences, panic and feelings of detachment.

“Psychedelics have always seemed like an interesting, extreme case of how the brain can create really fantastical and amazing visual representations,” said Sean Noah, a UC Berkeley postdoctoral researcher. “I think there’s a lot of unexplored potential in using psychedelics as tools to understand how the brain constructs our visual representation of the world and how the brain is related to consciousness in general.”

As researchers in the UC Berkeley study enroll volunteers and begin screening participants, they hope their efforts will solidify the scientific credibility of psilocybin. The recent policy setbacks indicate legislators are not convinced by current evidence, but further clinical trials can help pave the way for more informed policy decisions as advocates continue to push for legalization.

“The knowledge we gain from this foundational research will be essential for harnessing the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and improving mental health outcomes for countless individuals in need,” Silver, the study’s lead investigator, said in an email.

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