Psychedelic psilocybin: A Neuropharmacologist answers our questions

Psychedelic psilocybin: A Neuropharmacologist answers our questions

Psilocybin Q & A with Dr. Allison Feduccia

Neuropharmacologist and founder of Psychedelic Support, Dr. Allison Feduccia, answers our questions on all things psilocybin. We discuss the benefits of psilocybin in treating mental health conditions such as depression, PTSD, and anxiety, as well as the benefits of microdosing. Dr. Allison explains what happens to the brain during a mushroom trip and how psilocybin can be effective at bringing up unconscious feelings and buried memories that may need to be worked through for healing. 

Can you tell us about your background and what you do?

I’m a neuropharmacologist who began researching MDMA in 2004. I’ve worked on studies at universities, NIH, and MAPS investigating new treatments for mental health conditions. My husband, Shawn Grona, and I launched a website Psychedelic.Support in 2018 to provide evidence-based education on psychedelics and what we know from the research trials. Our site offers a vetted directory of licensed health providers and community groups to help those in need connect with knowledgeable practitioners for mental health support and integration.

In 2019, we launched Project New Day, a nonprofit to help people overcome addictions through the responsible and legal use of psychedelics. The foundation was started by Mike Sinyard, Founder and CEO of Specialized Bicycles, to advocate for research and new approaches for addiction recovery. We’re passionate about nurturing holistic care and breaking down barriers to access science-backed treatments.

Can you explain what psilocybin is?

Psilocybin is a psychoactive substance found in the fruiting mushroom bodies of specific types of mushrooms. Psilocybin-containing “magic” mushrooms can alter consciousness in big ways and have been used by indigenous cultures for medicinal and spiritual purposes dating back thousands of years. Psilocybin is now under study to see if it can be helpful for mental health conditions like depression, substance addictions, and anxiety associated with life-threatening illnesses. Initial reports suggest the non-ordinary states of consciousness a person experiences after taking psilocybin, along with supportive therapy, can have beneficial outcomes for a person’s wellbeing and mental state.

What are your thoughts on the therapeutic use of psilocybin?

The research is very promising for using psilocybin for therapeutic purposes but there are still many questions that remain – who is the right fit for this treatment? How long do the effects last? What role do expectation and placebo effects play? Will the study results generalize to a greater number of patients. 

From the clinical evidence, we see the importance of non-drug factors, such as the therapy surrounding the experience and how well a person can integrate the experience into their life to make behavioral changes. While there may be neurobiological mechanisms (brain and body effects) that help set the stage for healing to occur, there is still a lot of work that comes on the part of the person undergoing these treatments.

Is psilocybin effective in treating mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD?

We don’t have a definitive answer yet. Psilocybin has only been tested in a few hundred people in rigorous controlled trials to evaluate its safety and effectiveness as a treatment for mental health conditions. The initial studies have shown great results but until we have more evidence from clinical trials and FDA approval, we can’t say for sure that psilocybin is safe and helpful for these conditions.

Can you explain how psilocybin can be helpful in healing trauma?

There hasn’t been any research published on using psilocybin for treatment of PTSD or trauma. Small studies have begun to investigate this. Because psilocybin can bring up unconscious feelings and buried memories it could potentially be useful in the context of psychotherapy to help a person work through emotions and trauma memories. On the other hand, if trauma emerges and a person is not well supported, the experience can potentially be retraumatizing.

What do people usually experience during a mushroom trip?

People can experience a wide range of things on a trip. The experience is influenced by the environment where a person takes psilocybin and what is going on for the person when they take psilocybin. Psychedelics often amplify emotions and thoughts, so if someone is feeling stressed or discontentment, this may arise during the trip in the form of frightful visions or a panic attack. Being well prepared and having an emergency plan is very important for harm reduction. We created a free psychedelic harm reduction course to help folks stay safe if they decide to explore with psychedelics. 

Can you tell us what happens in the brain during a trip?

From brain imaging studies, we’ve learned that psychedelics enable brain regions to communicate that normally don’t. This change in brain activity alters sensory perceptions and may allow novel insights or ways of viewing oneself and the world to arise. Psychedelics are giving scientists new tools to study how the brain functions in both normal and disease states.

What benefits do people usually notice after using psilocybin?

In clinical studies where psilocybin is administered after preparatory sessions with trained guides or therapists, participants report feeling less depressed, more motivation to change harmful behaviors like smoking, and new insights into their lives. Psilocybin has been described as a reboot for the brain, and studies in non-human models show psychedelic substances can enhance neuroplasticity which is the basis for learning new things. We are only just discovering how these molecules work in the brain and body, and how non-drug factors impact the therapeutic effects.   

What is microdosing and what is it typically used for?

Microdosing is taking very small doses of a psychedelic substance. The goal is to not alter consciousness but to improve mood, creativity, and focus. Evidence for microdosing is anecdotal and this method has not been well studied yet in controlled studies. There is speculation of a placebo effect with microdosing, or alternatively by activating the serotonin receptors with small amounts of psychedelic substances there could possibly be an effect in the brain underlying the positive effects reported by microdosers. But people should be careful taking psychedelic substances repeatedly because safety studies have not tested this to know if there are adverse effects. 

Is psilocybin safe? Are there any risks involved?

Psilocybin has a low physical toxicity and thus far, studies in controlled settings under supervision of trained professionals find it to be safe in limited doses. When taken in non-medical contexts, risks increase for accidents, psychological difficulties, poor decision making, and possible contamination of substances from unregulated (unsafe) drug supplies.

Are there any resources you suggest for people interested in learning more about psilocybin?

We created a comprehensive course on psilocybin where we present information on the history, safety and effects, and findings from research. The online course is accredited for continuing medical education, and perfect for anyone who wants an in-depth understanding of psilocybin.