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How do magic mushrooms get their magic?

Oct 19, 2022 | Media Partners, The GrowthOp

This post is presented by our media partner The Growth Op
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Origin story of psychedelic compounds under investigation

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Investigators with the U.K.’s University of Plymouth are looking to address previously untested hypothesis into the origin of psychedelic compounds in fungi like magic mushrooms.

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Researchers will use advanced genetic methods and behavioural experiments, including next-generation DNA sequencing and lab tests to investigate fungal-insect interactions, to try to crack the mystery, suggests a statement from the university.

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Among other things, the plan is to explore “whether such traits have evolved as a form of defence against fungus-feeding invertebrates, or whether the fungi produce compounds that manipulate insect behaviour for their own advantage.”

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Investigators will focus mostly on psilocybin, which, in chemical terms “is very similar to serotonin, which is involved in the sending of information between nerve cells in animals,” the statement notes.

Gathering information is important given that psychedelic compounds found in so-called magic mushrooms “are increasingly being recognized for their potential to treat health conditions such as depression, anxiety, compulsive disorders and addiction,” say authors of the study, which is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

There has been a resurgence of interest in “psychedelic compounds from a human health perspective,” reports Jon Ellis, a lecturer in conservation genetics who is supervising the study.

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While much research is in the works, inside and outside of Canada, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reported in July it had been awarded the country’s first federal grant to study the effects of psilocybin on treatment-resistant depression. And a new study out of Johns Hopkins Medicine found psychedelics may lessen the fear of death and dying.

Despite the interest, though, there has never been a resolution regarding “the evolution of these compounds in nature and why fungi should contain neurotransmitter-like compounds,” Ellis notes.

He suggests that study findings “could also, in future, lead to exciting future discoveries, as the development of novel compounds that could be used as fungicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and antibiotics is likely to arise.”

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Kirsty Matthews Nicholass says there are almost 150 hallucinogenic species of Psilocybe, a genus of gilled mushrooms, on all continents except Antarctica. That said, “the fungal species in which these ‘magic’ compounds occur are not always closely related,” Matthews Nicholass explains.

“This raises interesting questions regarding the ecological pressures that may be acting to maintain the biosynthesis pathway for psilocybin,” she points out.

“I hope our project can change the public perception of magic mushrooms,” says Ellis. “But beyond that, asking questions about the biological world is a fundamental part of our human nature and this project fits into a long narrative of research asking questions about biodiversity and its evolution.”

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Just this month, Alberta announced it would become the first Canadian jurisdiction to regulate the psychedelic drug use for people in therapy.

A B.C. psilocybin producer is hoping the move will eventually mushroom into contracts supplying the province’s clinics, according to a recent article in the Calgary Herald. “We’d like to help them with the framework on how it’ll work, how do you secure a safe supply, and how do we fit in,” said Bill Ciprick, CEO of Optimi Health, which produces the psychoactive mushrooms.

PsyCan, the trade association for the legal Canadian psychedelic medicine and therapy sector, reported that it is cautiously optimistic about the Alberta government announcement, but added “good government policy cannot be created in a vacuum.”

“This decision is further validation of decades of research showing psychedelics can effectively address some the most intractable mental health problems we face as a society, especially compared to current standards of care,” argued Nick Kadysh, board chair of Psychedelics Canada.

We’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with feedback and story tips at thegrowthop@postmedia.com

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