Brain-altering fungi could be a radical new ingredient in medicine: ScienceAlert

If you were one of the millions who watched the HBO TV series Last of Usyou have probably raised awareness about the threat that fungi pose to our health.

The series is set in a post-apocalyptic world where parasites take over human brains and turn people into killer zombies. The scariest thing about this premise is that it’s not entirely improbable. Parasites or “zombie” fungi that alter the mind and behavior of their host do exist.

Fortunately, the real-life zombie fungus (known as cordyceps) infects only insects. This fungus takes over their bodies for the sole purpose of spreading seed-like fungal spores.

When the spores are ingested by insects, they germinate, grow, and secrete molecules that reach the host’s brain and interfere with its function.

Fungi force insects to abandon their aversion to heights and climb upwards. Upon reaching a position optimal for fungal survival, the fungus induces a ‘death grip’, devouring the host from the inside out and sprouting spore-laden mushrooms from the insect carcasses.

Fungi that change our minds

In humans, some fungi produce small molecules or metabolites that change our minds, and recent research has shown that these have therapeutic potential.

The most widely known is the hallucinogen psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is also a psychedelic of fungal origin.

Humans have known about the hallucinogenic properties of fungi for centuries. The Aztecs even gave dying people magic mushrooms to facilitate a peaceful transition to the afterlife.

Recently, however, there has been an explosion of interest in fungal metabolites, especially for their neurological benefits and potential in treating mental health conditions. No wonder, given the mechanisms that fungal metabolites use to interact with our nervous system.

Think of our brain like a map. When we are young, we explore every corner of this map to make sense of our environment, sending connections in all directions. In time, we unravel basic truths about how we get our food and where we live, strengthening the neural pathways that make up these connections.

Over time, networks emerge that reflect our unique experiences. Established trails are maintained in areas we frequently revisit, while underutilized connections fade away.

Conditions such as addiction, chronic depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are characterized by processes such as repetitive negative thinking and rumination, in which patients focus on negative thoughts in counterproductive ways. . Unfortunately, they strengthen brain connections and perpetuate unfavorable mental states.

But fungal metabolites are thought to give our brains the freedom to re-explore less-visited areas. Psychedelic “trips” are thought to allow people to experience a world without boundaries of reality. More recent research suggests that this is a manifestation of new brain exploration.

For example, psilocybin stimulates a receptor in the brain called 5-HT2a. This receptor normally binds to serotonin, a chemical in the body that controls communication between certain nerve cells.

However, when psilocybin binds to 5-HT2a receptors, it changes our brain and makes it more susceptible to making new connections (such as causing hallucinations at high doses). This is called increased neuroplasticity.

While the effects of a single high dose of psychedelics are temporary, evidence shows that two small doses of psilocybin every three weeks produce a sustained increase in connectivity between different functional areas of the brain.

Such neuroplastic changes can disrupt the rigid thought patterns that underlie certain mental health conditions.

In addition, psychedelics are thought to increase neuroplasticity, allowing people to see life situations in a new light. Combining psychedelics with more traditional talking therapy may allow us to explore and more fully understand the initial triggers of negative thought patterns.

This may prevent the same negative cycle from recurring after treatment. Indeed, studies have shown that psilocybin and combination therapy produced long-lasting antidepressant effects in adults with major depressive disorder.

Additional studies have demonstrated positive effects of fungal metabolites in treating various conditions such as anxiety, depression, and alcoholism. These studies also noted that while antidepressants can take many months to take effect, psilocybin can affect symptoms after just one or two doses. I’m here.

there is no miracle cure

However, psychedelic drugs should not be considered a miracle cure, as there are still many unknowns. Moreover, most research on psychedelics has involved a limited number of participants and is still in its preliminary stages.

As such, experts are divided on the effectiveness of psychedelic treatments. Moreover, psychedelics are potent and unpredictable, and the safety and long-term effects of such treatments are unknown.

However, given the current mental health crisis, interventions that offer new approaches to addressing these conditions, especially treatment-resistant ones, need to be carefully considered and rigorously studied.

Interestingly, many countries have recognized the benefits of psychedelics in mental health treatment. The Australian government has even legalized prescription psilocybin for medical use in 2022. The UK has not yet allowed the prescription of psychedelics, but several research centers are conducting trials to establish the mental health benefits of fungal metabolites.

Although there are still many unknowns about fungal metabolites, including whether there are other molecules that have similar effects on neuronal function, they clearly have great potential in mental health treatments.

Perhaps it’s time to let go of certain negative connotations we hold toward illegal fungal drugs and feel at ease thinking of brain-altering psychedelic drugs as drugs.

Edel Hyland, Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry and Mycobiology, Queen’s University Belfast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Please read the original article.

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