“We want mushrooms!” That’s what Art Goodtimes, a San Miguel County commissioner and the grandmaster of the Telluride Mushroom Festival, yells as the parade of merry participants wearing mushroom hats and druid robes marches along Main Street at the conclusion of the festival.
For the last 31 years, on a weekend late in August (this year’s festival starts on Thursday, Aug. 18), 200 or so people gather, many looking like extras from a Grateful Dead concert, to hear lectures on enthogens and mushroom biology, bioremediation and natural medicine. Most mushroom festivals and conferences in the USA – and there are many – don’t even mention psilocybe mushrooms. It’s as if they are the black sheep of the mycological world. Only at the Telluride Festival are these surprising organisms discussed and celebrated.
But establishment prejudice against psilocybe mushroom is changing. In the late 1950s, Dr. Albert Hoffman, the scientist who first synthesized LSD from ergot — the fungus Claviceps purpurea – at Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland in 1938, extracted the active ingredients in a Psilocybe mushroom and synthesized a new compound, psilocybin.
It’s been three decades since psilocybin got caught up in the counterculture drug scene, and was subsequently determined a Schedule 1 substance, like heroin.
But the hysteria has finally died down, and today scientists can study the mushroom and its psychoactive compounds without tanking their careers. Indeed, funding for studies utilizing psilocybin is on the rise, with a handful of studies currently underway, much of them building on the work of scientists 30 years ago. Preliminary results from those studies are showing that the little blue-staining mushroom may one day be of enormous benefit to patients suffering from an array of neurological and psychiatric complaints.
Psilocybin is a chemical present in a wide range of mushrooms, but half of all species in the genus Psilocybe (about 190 species) are psilocybin-producing, though why psilocybin exists in these mushrooms is a mystery.
Psilocybin is an indole alkaloid related to bufotenin and serotonin. When ingested, psilocybin metabolizes to psilocin, which resembles the chemical structure of serotonin. Psilocin may simulate serotonin, and stimulate serotonin receptors and sub receptors in the brain, or it may amp up the serotonin already present. Either way, the action is similar to psycopharmaceutical drugs used to treat patients by altering their serotonin levels. Writes Andy Letcher, in his excellent book Shroom, “It is rather as if a new, alien but curiously compatible piece of software is thrown into the brain’s computer, disrupting its normal operations in novel and unexpected ways.”
In the years following its discovery, psilocybin was used in a variety of psychiatric applications. In 1960, Timothy Leary, a lecturer in psychology at Harvard University, administered psilocybin to 32 prison inmates to see if the drug would help discourage recidivism (it only delayed their return to crime.) There were studies on its effect in treating alcoholism; as a tool in therapy (to help “open up and discuss problems,” wrote Christopher Hobbs in Medicinal Mushrooms) and as a mechanism by which the terminally ill might better cope with despair. All this because the patient, as Gary Lincoff wrote in Toxic and Hallucinogenic Mushroom Poisoning, “divorced from the crippling anxieties of the present…can look dispassionately on his condition, perhaps come to understand it, and possibly learn to accept or correct it.”
Those avenues of research are now being reopened. In 2006 the University of Arizona conducted a study on the effects of using psilocybin to modify obsessive-compulsive disorder. The study found that several subjects within their control group experienced acute reductions in their core symptoms. That same year, the American Academy of Neurology issued a report based on interviews with 53 patients suffering from cluster headaches who had been using psilocybin (or LSD: ergot is also used as a migraine medication) to self-medicate this notoriously horrid syndrome. The researchers found that psilocybin was the only medicine known to abort the headaches.
Indeed, I met a young architectural historian in New York, Ralph Ghoche, who suffered from crippling cluster headaches for years. He went to numerous doctors who put him on analgesics and steroids, although they acknowledged there is no cure and no accepted treatment. Then Ghoche read, on Clusterbusters.com, a website devoted to the syndrome, a testimonial about the effectiveness of psilocybin. “So I got some mushrooms – I don’t know what kind they were – and took the small dose recommended on the website.”
Ghoche’s trip was barely on the radar: “It was boring,” he said. The next day, he felt the premonition of a headache coming on. “I thought, fuck, the mushrooms didn’t work, and then I felt something occurring in my brain and the headache was blocked. The same thing happened the next day, and then that was it. I’ve been three years without a headache.”
Since 2008, Roland Griffiths and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins Medical have been studying psilocybin and patients dealing with cancer and depression. In 2009 Johns Hopkins Medical launched its Psilocybin Cancer Project, a study of states of consciousness brought about by psilocybin and their impact on psychological distress and spirituality. New York University is currently sponsoring a double-blind placebo controlled study of the effects of psilocybin on patients suffering from cancer and associated anxiety, as are other research groups at Yale, UCLA, and MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies).
Dr. Charles Grob, a professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at UCLA School of Medicine, completed a study in 2008 of psilocybin treatment for anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer. (Psilocybin was selected because it is less intense and paranoiac than LSD, and carries less cultural baggage.) He and his colleagues found that patients exhibited “a significant reduction in anxiety at one and three months after treatment…and improvement of mood that reached significance at six months.” The study suggests that patients seemed to experience a re-equilibration, where they acquired a perspective on their lives that helped them come to terms with their fate, helping not only the patients cope, but their families as well.
Psilocybin was in exile for three decades from the scientific mainstream, and during that time the Telluride Mushroom Festival has kept the flame. They may have had the right idea all along: the new research is suggesting there is a lot more to Psilocybe mushrooms than a night at a rave.
Veteran food writer Eugenia Bone is the author of four books. Her first, At Mesa’s Edge, is about life in the North Fork Valley. Her forthcoming book, Mycophilia, is due out from Rodale in October 2011. Eugenia writes a blog about preserving for The Denver Post called “Well-Preserved Colorado.”