Many scientists believe the hallucinogenic compound inside certain mushrooms could improve treatments for some psychological conditions and forms of physical pain, even though mushrooms have long been dismissed as medically useless.
In June, the medical journal Neurology reported on more than 20 cases in which mushroom ingestion prevented or stopped cluster headaches more reliably than prescription pharmaceuticals. Then in July, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore reported that mushrooms could instill a sense of spirituality and connection. This specific finding could lead to treatments for patients suffering from mental anguish or addiction, according to scientists.
This recent research into the properties of mushrooms has been driven in part by the success of mood-altering pharmaceuticals such as the antidepressant Prozac. Prozac and similar drugs work on the same brain chemicals and pathways as the components in mushrooms.
The study of hallucinogens in therapy was a mainstream endeavor as far back as 40 years ago. The Swiss drug company Sandoz eventually provided pharmaceutical-grade tablets of psilocybin -- the mushroom component -- and various researchers explored its use as a treatment for depression and other psychological problems.
After several failures in the field, the late 1990s saw a resurgence of mushroom experiments, led by discoveries in neuroscience that illuminated the biochemical basis of mood and consciousness.
So far, nothing scientists have learned indicates that recreational use of mushrooms is safe, and the psychological effects remain unpredictable. In fact, deaths have been linked to mushroom intoxication.
Even under the tightly controlled conditions of a clinical trial, some patients under the mushroom treatment have had terrifying experiences marked by anxiety and paranoia, with two patients in the Johns Hopkins study saying that the experience was like being in a war.