Slide 1 of 23
At first glance, Psilocybe cubensis doesn't look particularly magical. In fact, the scientific name of this little brown-and-white mushroom roughly translates to "bald head," befitting the fungus's rather mild-mannered appearance. But those who have ingested a dose of P. cubensis say it changes the user's world.
The mushroom is one of more than 100 species that contain compounds called psilocybin and psilocin, which are psychoactive and cause hallucinations, euphoria and other trippy symptoms. These "magic mushrooms" have long been used in Central American religious ceremonies, and are now part of the black market in drugs in the United States and many other countries, where they are considered a controlled substance.
How does a modest little mushroom upend the brain so thoroughly? Read on for the strange secrets of 'shrooms.
Mushrooms hyperconnect the brainSlide 2 of 23
Mushrooms hyperconnect the brain
The compounds in psilocybin mushrooms may give users a "mind-melting" feeling, but in fact, the drug does just the opposite — psilocybin actually boosts the brain's connectivity, according to an October 2014 study. Researchers at King's College London asked 15 volunteers undergo brain scanning by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. They did so once after ingesting a dose of magic mushrooms, and once after taking a placebo. The resulting brain connectivity maps showed that, while under the influence of the drug, the brain synchronizes activity among areas that would not normally be connected. This alteration in activity could explain the dreamy state that 'shroom users report experiencing after taking the drug, the researchers said.Slide 3 of 23
They can slow brain activitySlide 4 of 23
They can slow brain activity
'Shrooms act in other strange ways upon the brain. Psilocybin works by binding to receptors for the neurotransmitter serotonin. Although it's not clear exactly how this binding affects the brain, studies have found that the drug has other brain-communication-related effects in addition to increased synchronicity.
In one study, brain imaging of volunteers who took psilocybin revealed decreased activity in information-transfer areas such as the thalamus, a structure deep in the middle of the brain. Slowing down the activity in areas such as the thalamus may allow information to travel more freely throughout the brain, because that region is a gatekeeper that usually limits connections, according to the researchers from Imperial College London.Slide 5 of 23
Magic mushrooms go way backSlide 6 of 23
Magic mushrooms go way back
Central Americans were using psilocybin mushrooms before Europeans landed on the New World's shores; the fantastical fungi grow well in subtropical and tropical environments. But how far back were humans tripping on magic mushrooms?
It's not an easy question to answer, but a 1992 paper in the short-lived journal, "Integration: Journal of Mind-Moving Plants and Culture," argued that rock art in the Sahara dating back 9,000 years depicts hallucinogenic mushrooms. The art in question shows masked figures holding mushroomlike objects. Other drawings show mushrooms positioned behind anthropomorphic figures — possibly a nod to the fact that mushrooms grow in dung. (The mushroom figures have also been interpreted as flowers, arrows or other plant matter, however, so it remains an open question whether the people who lived in the ancient Sahara used 'shrooms.)Slide 7 of 23
Magic mushrooms explain Santa ... maybeSlide 8 of 23