How often do we truly notice what lies beneath our feet?

Whilst walking through my local woods, I spotted a cluster of honey mushrooms, their flattened caps glistening with dew. Stooping to pick at a fragile stem, I rise with my treasure in hand, triumphant! Smiling, I feel as if I have just uncovered a hidden gem of this world.

We are all descendants of fungi. They are the elders and teachers of our world; their fossil record dates back as far as 2.4 billion years ago! Fungi are our closest ancestral kingdom, and we are remarkably similar in the way we combat disease, process chemical stimuli and respond to our environment. The animal and fungi kingdom share proteins that are unheard of in plants and bacteria, meaning that you have more in common with a mushroom than a mushroom does with a plant! As confusing as this may seem, fungi hold a wealth of intelligence that has been overlooked for centuries that is all just starting to be uncovered.

The John Hopkins Psilocybin research project has been running for over 20 years and, in 2016, they conducted a double-blind psilocybin trial on cancer patients with severe psychological stress disorders such as depression and PTSD. The patients were trailed for 9 months with either a placebo dose or an active dose of psilocybin mushroom. The results demonstrated clear evidence of substantial and sustained decrease in depression and anxiety in the non-placebo patients, with 92% saying they experienced lessened symptoms of psychological disturbance.  The significant difference value was placed at p<0.001 (a 0.1% probability that the results are due to chance) – ruling out the placebo effect here.

In addition to this, psilocin has a much more direct impact on brain chemistry as it binds strongly to serotonin receptor 5HT2A at the frontal lobe of the brain, mimicking the effects of high levels of serotonin – a hormone responsible for control of mood. Current medications for anxiety and depression, such as Pizotifen and Cyproheptadine, also target this receptor. However, they work to block the receptor and prevent activation, in effect acting in the exact opposite way to psilocin. The John Hopkins trial demonstrated that a relief in depressive symptoms could last anywhere between several weeks to a month after a single dose, whereas modern prescribed tablets need to be taken every day. In a climate where depression rates are rising, we should not ignore the remarkable possibilities at hand for the future of mental health medicine.

As well as our future, psychedelic mushrooms are also intertwined with our past. The Stoned Ape hypothesis coined by Terrance McKenna is a ground-breaking theory that our ancestors of the genus homo, when trekking along the savannah, would have consumed psilocybin mushroom found growing in cattle and ungulate dung. The experiences discovered on these mushrooms induce sensory experiences likely never felt before by the early hominins. For example, they have the potential to induce synaesthesia, (an overlap between sensory experience where one might see music, or hear colour for example), as well as allowing an organism to overcome an ingrained fear response. McKenna’s theory suggests that this happened millions of times, over millions of years, contributing to the rapid expansion of human neural capacity and brain size.

And if this seems all too far-fetched and eccentric, I ask you to suspend your disbelief and consider the theory from a logical perspective. Say, for example, a dose of the mushrooms allowed an early hominin hunter to overcome the fear instinct for a predator. This allows not only increased chances of survival, but also the potential for social interactions; they are more likely to be viewed as courageous and experienced, therefore would they make a good leader? Or a teacher? This allows the forces of natural selection to act in favour of hominins that are better hunters and those that can form better social networks. Unfortunately, the theory is near impossible to prove, but a rising number of scientists are beginning to support it, owing to the fact that many chemicals found in mushrooms seem to interact perfectly with our neural structures, some even seem to have the ability to temporarily rewire the brain.

A more recent study in 2020 by the Beckley Foundation used MRI to measure the effects of psilocin (the active hallucinogen in Psilocybin mushrooms) in the brain, concluding that higher levels of psilocin induce a build-up of the neurotransmitter glutamate in localised areas of the brain. These areas include the medial pre-frontal cortex, which is thought to be the centre for conscious, self-aware processing. The study concluded that increasing glutamate levels here caused increased distortion in the subjective experience of self. This effect is termed “ego dissolution” and ultimately causes the disruption of self-world boundaries and increases feelings of unity with others and your surroundings. The diverse effects of these molecules in our neural pathways could possibly suggest a co-evolutionary relationship between us and mushrooms, adding further weight to McKenna’s theory.

Despite all of this, our perception of mushrooms remains so stigmatised and trivial. What comes to mind when someone says the word mushrooms? Likely on the list are mental images of the swinging 60s, flared trousers splattered with peace signs, smoky rooms filled with John Lennon look-a-likes. The 1970s war on drugs campaign saw psychedelic substances highly demonised in the media and as a result of this, politicisation of mushrooms of the psilocybin genus began. For the first-time people begun to associate mushrooms with being liberal, being anti-war, and being degenerate. Who knew that a group of organisms so small could hold such political power?  Now is the time to shake off this stigma and support ventures into such a promising area of science. And, next time you are out walking, notice what lies at your footsteps – one day they might be saving your life.