Psychoactive Compounds for Mental Health-Magic mushrooms, the past, present and the future

Magic mushrooms, the past, present and the future

The last few years have seen a huge increase in the interest in magic mushrooms, on nearly every course I run I get asked about them or someone slips into the conversation that they are micro dosing. Research by the ONS shows that one in 100 people in England and Wales took hallucinogenic drugs in the last year. The data suggests about 260,000 people aged between 16 and 59 have taken magic mushrooms in the last year, 100,000 more than in 2020. Increasing use by older adults was thought to be behind the rise.

Magic mushrooms variously known as shrooms, mushies, libs or liberty caps, are classed as a class A drug in the UK, which means possession and distribution are criminal offenses regardless of whether the fungus is freshly picked from a field or dried, however as their spores don’t contain psilocybin they can be sold and are available online by mail order, including in grow-your-own packs, and many users harvest them in the wild for their own use. 

The main component of interest is the serotonergic hallucinogen psilocybin. Psilocybin is a naturally occurring molecule found in over 200 species of fungi. It is structurally similar to serotonin – a human neurotransmitter that has a role in the regulation of mood and perception. Psilocybin-containing mushrooms can be found in the genera Conocybe, Gymnopilus, Panaeolus, Pluteus, Psilocybe, and Stropharia. 

Other ‘trippy’ compounds for example muscarine and ibotenic acid are found in many other species too. And the ergot fungus contains a number of highly poisonous and psychoactive alkaloids, including lysergic acid (LSD).

This article mainly focuses on the Psilocybin-containing species.

The most common species in the UK to contain psilocybin is the Liberty Caps (Psilocybe semilanceata) to read more about this mushroom click here


We do occasional find an non-native species too, The Wavy Cap or BlueLeg Brownie (Psilocybe cyanescens) to read more about this mushroom click here


The Rigveda or Rig Veda is one of the oldest of the books in the world, its composed in an ancient form of Sanskrit and is believed to have been written about 1500 BCE. It has several mentions of a mysterious drink called soma, Scholars have spent much time debating the ingredients to this ritual brew and many believe it was made with mushrooms containing psilocybn. It’s hard to know for certain but one thing is for sure, mushrooms can and have done some strange things to humans dating back thousands of years.

The use of psychoactive mushrooms dates back thousands of years, rock art from c. 9000–7000 BCE from Algeria, is believed to depict psychedelic mushrooms and the transformation of the user under their influence.  Prehistoric rock art near Villar del Humo in Spain suggests that Psilocybe hispanica was used in religious rituals 6,000 years ago. Species of the Psilocybe genus have a history of use among the native peoples of Mesoamerica for religious communion, divination, and healing, from pre-Columbian times to the present day.

The common name Liberty cap has quite an interesting story, the original liberty cap was an actual hat, worn by freed slaves in the ancient Roman world to mark their status. After the collapse of the Roman empire the liberty cap was forgotten until around the 16th century, when it began to be used as a political symbol. When William of Orange seized the English throne in 1688 he minted liberty cap coins to commemorate this event.

It again feature in the 1790 French revolution when an armed mob stormed the royal palace and forced Louis XVI to don the liberty cap. Most likely inspired by this, revolutionary groups in America declared their rebellion against British rule by raising a liberty cap upon a pole in the public squares of their towns and in 1781 a medal, designed by Benjamin Franklin to mark the fifth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, depicted Liberty (as in the statue of Liberty the great American symbol of freedom) with wild, free flowing hair, the pole and cap of liberty slung across her shoulder.

The first mention of hallucinogenic mushrooms in European medicinal literature was in the London Medical and Physical Journal in 1799. A man served Psilocybe semilanceata mushrooms to his family. The apothecary who treated them later described how the youngest child “was attacked with fits of immoderate laughter, nor could the threats of his father or mother refrain him.”

In 1957 an American banker and amateur ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson and his wife Valentina P. Wasson, a physician, studied the ritual use of psychoactive mushrooms by the native population in the Mexico. Wasson described the psychedelic visions that he experienced during these rituals in “Seeking the Magic Mushroom”, an article published in the popular American weekly Life magazine and become a household name almost overnight.

Later in the same year they were accompanied on a follow-up expedition by French mycologist Roger Heim, who identified several of the mushrooms as Psilocybe species. Heim cultivated the mushrooms in France.

Also Inspired by the Wassons’ Life article, Timothy Leary travelled to Mexico to experience psilocybin mushrooms himself. When he returned to Harvard in 1960, he and Richard Alpert started the Harvard Psilocybin Project, promoting psychological and religious studies of psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs. The project was highly controversial, probably unethical and almost certainly illegal, as they were pressurising students to take part, but it became the bedrock of the ‘hippie’ movement.

In the 1960’s psychedelics became an important symbol in the counterculture movement in the US and UK leading perhaps to the flower power movement and the release of some of the greatest songs ever.. The growing disillusionment with “the capitalist system” that psychedelics caused led to them being outlawed and mushrooms containing psilocin or psilocybin were brought under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and are designated as Class A drugs.

Maximum penalties are 7 years imprisonment and a fine for possession and life imprisonment and a fine for supply.

In practice, maximum sentences are rarely used.

Not only did the change in legal status bring down their recreational use but it also stopped any related research for many years. But in 2019 the world’s first centre for psychedelic research opened at Imperial College London. The Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research aims to develop psilocybin therapy into a licensed treatment for depression. It will also investigate their potential for treating other conditions, including anorexia.

Originally led by Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, the Centre will focus on two main research themes: the use of psychedelics in mental health care; and as tools to probe the brain’s basis of consciousness. 

Psychedelic therapy holds a great deal of promise for treating some very serious mental health conditions and may one day offer new hope to vulnerable people with limited treatment options”

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris-Head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research, Imperial College London

And there is growing evidence that it works, many more trials are needed but the initial results are promising 

  • In 2014, a small randomised controlled trial in Switzerland suggested LSD-assisted psychotherapy had the potential to reduce the anxiety associated with terminal illness. Twelve participants with life-threatening illness were enrolled in the study to receive treatment that involved drug-free psychotherapy sessions supplemented with two LSD-assisted sessions two to three weeks apart. At two months’ follow-up, the State–Trait Anxiety Inventory (a commonly used inventory to measure trait and state anxiety) showed non-significant reductions in trait anxiety, but significant reductions in state anxiety. Follow-up with nine participants one year after treatment showed a sustained therapeutic benefit with no acute or chronic drug-related severe adverse events, and there were no adverse effects lasting more than one day after an LSD-assisted session.
  • A 2008 study on end-of-life anxiety focused on 12 participants with end-stage cancer. After several non–drug-assisted therapy sessions, participants underwent a crossover study in which they received a dose of psilocybin across two sessions a few weeks apart. Findings showed that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy lowered anxiety and improved mood, without clinically significant adverse effects.
  • A 2015 study of treatment for tobacco dependence, involved 15 participants who smoked at least 10 cigarettes per day and had multiple previous unsuccessful cessation attempts. Participants received cognitive behavioural therapy before and after treatment with psilocybin. Treatment included two or three psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy sessions. At six months’ follow-up, 12 of the 15 participants were abstinent.
    Matthew W. Johnson, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

A cross-party group of MPs and eminent scholars has recommended that the government downgrades the class A psychedelic drugs from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2. This is currently being debated. Some of the main points raised are:

  • Poor mental health is the single largest cause of disability in the UK, currently costing the UK economy an estimated £105 billion per year, predominantly due to losses in productivity.
  • Psilocybin-assisted therapy for severe depression has shown long-term efficacy of more than 70%.
  • Early clinical trials have shown psilocybin to be a safe and effective treatment for several mental health issues, including substance misuse, trauma, and depression.
  • Currently UK drug control laws are unnecessarily restricting research in this area. This applies to patient treatment and drug development as well as basic and applied research into the mechanisms of these compounds.

I really don’t want this article to come across that I’m encouraging people to break the law at all but I think we just need to have a bit more of a grown up conversation about their use. We need to treat recreational use differently than medical usage. We don’t for example treat a junkie the same as someone facing end of life care when in fact they both use the same substances. 

If for example magic mushroom were made legal yes recreational use would more than likely increase and some harm would perhaps result from this but its not as though legal drugs and medications are completely safe either, think of the damage caused by smoking tobacco or the fact that in the USA more than 100,000 people are killed from properly prescribed medications each year and deaths from medications are now the 4th leading cause of death.

In 2023 Australia became the first country in the world to legalise the use of psychedelics to treat some mental health conditions. Approved psychiatrists can now prescribe magic mushrooms for some types of depression. The move has been hailed as a game-changer by many scientists and mental health experts and I’d imagine in the coming years more and more countries will join them.


References and further reading:]