March 17, 2022

Magic mushrooms as medicine

Psilocybin mushrooms in gloved hand

Psilocybin, or ‘magic mushrooms’, belongs to a group of drugs called psychedelics.1

It’s usually eaten fresh, cooked or brewed into a tea. 

Psilocybin has been around for a long time, and has been used by some Indigenous communities around the world for over 1000 years.2 In fact, some researchers believe rock paintings in Western Australia show psilocybin use in Indigenous ceremonies over 10,000 years ago.3

Psychedelics can cause changes in mood, perception and thought,1 and in the 1950s and 60s scientists became interested in how these effects might help people experiencing mental illness.2

They began to study psychedelics to treat conditions like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alcohol dependence.2

In the 60s, the countercultural movement – or ‘hippies’ – began to experiment with psychedelic drugs,2 creating moral panic and negative media coverage.

So, despite promising findings, psychedelic research ended abruptly in the 70s.2

But that’s changing.

Since the early 2000s, there’s been growing interest in the benefits of psychedelics like psilocybin – causing a research ‘renaissance’ in Australia and overseas. 

What are we learning?

This new wave of psychedelic research has shown promising results. 

We’ve learned psilocybin can have anti-depressant and anti-anxiety effects that last for several months.4

It also appears to be helpful in the treatment of terminally ill people with depression and anxiety, and for nicotine and alcohol dependence.2,5

Psilocybin may also increase the brain’s ability to create new emotional and information pathways.5

While we’re beginning to understand psilocybin’s potential, there are also risks. 

Psilocybin may worsen the symptoms of certain conditions like personality disorders and schizophrenia.2

We also know some physical health conditions, like heart and liver disease, increase the chance of negative side-effects.2

Psychedelic therapy should always take place under professional supervision to reduce risk.

What’s happening in Australia?

At first, we lagged behind other countries in psychedelic research, but we’re starting to catch up.

In 2021, the Australian Government announced $15 million worth of grants to researchers studying the mental health benefits of drugs like MDMA, psilocybin and ketamine.6

And last year Australia became home to the Psychae Institute, a global psychedelic research institute in Melbourne.7

Several clinical trials are underway in Australia:

  • use of psilocybin in the treatment of people who want to stop or reduce their methamphetamine use8
  • psilocybin-assisted therapy for severe anxiety9
  • use of psilocybin for terminally ill patients experiencing depression and anxiety.10

The use of psilocybin in therapy isn’t legal outside of clinical trials. 

Are the laws changing?

Not yet. 

An Australian charity, Mind Medicine Australia, is pushing for changes to laws relating to psychedelics. It’s been advocating for the prescribed use of psilocybin to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).2

In December 2021, the TGA decided not to change regulations around psilocybin, stating that it doesn’t yet consider the drug to meet the required criteria. It made the same decision for MDMA.11

Psilocybin may become available for prescribed use in the future if trials continue to show positive results. 

Researchers and advocates will also need to continue to show psilocybin’s safety and address negative perceptions.2

  1. Psilocybin (Magic Mushrooms). London: Drug Science UK; 2022 [21/2/2022].
  2. Bright S, Williams M. Psychedelics to treat mental illness? Australian researchers are giving it a go. Melbourne: The Conversation Media Group Ltd; 2019 [viewed 21/2/2022].
  3. Pettigrew J. Iconography in Bradshaw rock art: breaking the circularity. Clinical and Experimental Optometry. 2011 [viewed 21/2/2022]; 94(5):[403-17 pp.].
  4. Muttoni S, Ardissino M, John C. Classical psychedelics for the treatment of depression and anxiety: A systematic review. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2019 [viewed: 21/2/2022]; 258:[11-24 pp.]. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165032719309127.
  5. Notable Achievements Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University 2022 [viewed: 21/2/2022].
  6. $15 million for development of innovative therapies for mental illness Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2021 [viewed 21/2/2022.]
  7. Booker C. $40m psychedelic medicine institute launches in Melbourne. 2021 [viewed: 21/2/2022]. https://www.smh.com.au/national/40m-psychedelic-medicine-institute-launches-in-melbourne-20210728-p58dlo.html.
  8. World-first psychedelics trial aims to provide relief for methamphetamine addiction: St Vincent's Health Australia; 2021 [viewed: 21/2/2022]. https://www.svhs.org.au/newsroom/announcements/psychedelics-trial-aims-to-provide-relief-for-metha.
  9. World-first psilocybin clinical trial in the treatment of Generalised Anxiety Disorder receives ethics approval Melbourne: Monash University; 2021 [viewed: 21/2/2022]. https://www.monash.edu/news/articles/world-first-psilocybin-clinical-trial-in-the-treatment-of-generalised-anxiety-disorder-receives-ethics-approval.
  10. Australia’s first psychedelic clinical trial commences recruitment: St Vincent's Health Australia; 2019 [viewed: 21/2/2022]. https://www.svhm.org.au/newsroom/news/australia-s-first-psychedelic-clinical-trial-commences-recruitment.
  11. Notice of final decision to not amend the current Poisons Standard - Psilocybin and MDMA. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2021.

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