The role of scientific shrooms in curing OCD


The use of recreational drugs and how they can help mitigate illnesses such as OCD explored

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Image by TherapeuticShroom (Michael M - Pixabay)

By Molly Taylor

Humans love drugs. Using drugs can be dated back 10,000 years being taken under a vast range of conditions and circumstances; there are even engravings in churches in Germany that show the transfiguration of Jesus, under him are prominent psilocybin mushrooms (more frequently referred to as magic mushrooms). Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic that can be found in more than 200 species of mushrooms, which is metalized into psilocin, a serotonin antagonist, which inhibits the action of serotonin  – the key hormone involved in stabilising mood, well-being and feeling happy.

It is theorised that the binding mechanism of these types of psychoactive compounds is based on their shape which fits the keyhole of a specific serotonin receptor in the brain. One study of the last decade tested the neurological effects of psilocybin, showing hundreds of neural connections which simply do not occur when people were not on mushrooms. It has a big effect on the brain, and there is a notable sense of euphoria when psilocybin is consumed. It is taken recreationally for this very reason, but it also has proven to have some positive applications in health. For example, improved mood and reduced anxiety in cancer patients, as a potential treatment for addiction, and very encouraging results in those with treatment-resistant depression.

In an article published in Arizona in 2005, researchers set to apply this knowledge of the effectiveness of psilocybin to a different form of anxiety disorder: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or, OCD. This can be an extremely debilitating condition commonly experienced alongside other mental illnesses such as depression or delusions such as panic and substance abuse. To treat OCD, patients are sometimes prescribed Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, which work by binding to serotonin receptors to stop the release of this hormone.

Other treatments include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is a talking therapy as opposed to drug therapy, though because this takes a long time for improvement to be seen, and is an expensive form of treatment, it is rarely offered. However, there are several reported cases of beneficial effects of  hallucinogenic drugs in patients with OCD. One case study follows a 34-year-old man who suffered from OCD symptoms since the age of 14 and was extremely resistant to other treatments offered to him. He used freeze-dried psilocybe mushrooms recreationally and observed consistently that while taking these, he was free of obsessions and compulsions. He continued to take these which eventually led to him not experiencing the psychedelic effects of mushrooms but his OCD symptoms were still relieved despite the lack of a ‘high’.

A study tested these effects in an empirical setting by sending a group of participants who had an OCD diagnosis to an inpatient hospital and gave them psilocybin mushrooms in different doses, finding that in a small time frame, all participants experienced relief from their OCD symptoms, which generally lasted longer than 24 hours. In a controlled environment, psilocybin was safely administered to subjects with OCD and was associated with reductions in core symptoms.

This is a good first insight into OCD treatment with psilocybin, though because it was in a clinical environment and there is a psychoactive effect some patients regarded anxiety and a ‘bad trip’. Researchers argued that if subjects had been in a more comfortable setting their experience would have been less stress-inducing. Nevertheless, with drugs such as marijuana only very recently being considered for medical use, I find it unlikely that in the near future treatments like this, for the sake of being a taboo subject of conversation in many medical settings, will not be wholly welcomed in medicine. For progress to be made in these areas of research and subsequent treatment trials to be effective, more broad societal attitudes to drugs, and indeed drug legislation will need to be revisited for medical practices to welcome such changes in treatment for OCD.