Psychedelic drugs explained: how do the most common work?


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Jose Martinez contains psilocybin mushroom capsules that relieve pain and discomfort.

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Many Americans are familiar with psychedelic drugs. But many are not.

With polls showing that a majority of the public believe hallucinogens can provide lasting breakthroughs for stubborn mental illnesses and addictive disorders, it’s important to know what substances we’re talking about.

Many psychoactive substances are considered a type of herbal or synthetic psychedelic, but these are the most common. Of these, psilocybin and MDMA have been the most studied in recent years, and are currently the only ones receiving FDA approval for treatment anytime soon.


Psilocybin is the main ingredient in magic mushrooms and is naturally produced by over 200 species of mushrooms. Once ingested and metabolized, psilocybin activates serotonin receptors in the brain that affect mood, cognition, and perception.

Several landmark studies, including research conducted by Johns Hopkins University and New York University, have documented the effectiveness of psilocybin as a treatment for major depression and alcohol dependence when taken is associated with advice.


Also known as ecstasy and molly, MDMA is a synthetic drug that increases the activity of three neurotransmitters, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. This causes mood-enhancing or “prosocial” effects that make users feel more friendly, loving, and strongly connected to others.

A groundbreaking study conducted last year by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) found that 67% of people who received MDMA-assisted therapy “no longer met diagnostic criteria for PTSD” just two months later. the treatment. Before MDMA-assisted therapy can be approved, the Food and Drug Administration needs a second positive Phase 3 trial, which is underway and could release results as early as next year.


Colloquially known as acid, LSD is a powerful synthetic chemical made from a substance found in ergot, a fungus that infects grain. It was first synthesized in 1938 by a Swiss chemist, Dr. Albert Hofmann, who worked for a pharmaceutical company and sent the drug to interested researchers around the world, kickstarting decades of psychedelic research in the mid-20th century.

The hallucinogen eventually reached a Harvard psychologist, Timothy Leary, the infamous psychedelic evangelist who shamelessly introduced LSD into the 1960s era and encouraged people to “turn on, listen, quit.” It also reached Ken Kesey, renowned author of ‘Flight Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and Stanford University scholar behind the famous acid test bus rides that sparked the counter movement. -hippie culture of the country.

The therapeutic effects of LSD are still unclear, if any. Some limited studies have shown signs that it might help relieve anxiety or boost social interaction, but more research is needed for regulators to believe it might have any therapeutic benefit. For now, it is mostly considered a recreational drug.


Ayahuasca is an entheogenic beverage brewed by indigenous tribes in the Amazon Basin for thousands of years, used primarily in social gatherings and spiritual ceremonies. The drink is made from plants that contain an ingredient known by the short name DMT, which is a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States.

As with LSD, clinical research showing therapeutic benefits has been limited. A 2018 study found that it could significantly reduce symptoms of treatment-resistant depression.

This story was originally published September 9, 2022 5:00 a.m.

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Yousef Baig is The Bee’s Associate Opinion Editor and covers a variety of local and state issues for the Editorial Board. He previously worked at The Press Democrat, Petaluma Argus-Courier and Napa Valley Register. He is the eldest son of Pakistani immigrants, originally from Atlanta and a proud alumnus of the University of Georgia.

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