What is psilocybin?

  • Name: Psilocybin, 4-PO-DMT
  • F0rmula: C12H17N2O4P
  • IUPAC name: [3-(2-dimethylaminoethyl)-1H-indol-4-il] dihydrogen phosphate
  • Molecular weight: 284,25 g/mol
  • Melting point: 220-228ºC

Psilocybin and psilocin (an alkaloid derived from the former) are psychoactive compounds found in numerous species of fungi (estimated at 200 species), including the popular Psilocybe Cubensis. In some areas of the planet, the use of this type of mushroom dates back millennia, either in a recreational or a spiritual form, especially in ritualistic and shamanic contexts. In addition, as we will see later, these entheogens – like many others – can also be used for medicinal purposes, and can be effective to treat diseases such as anxiety or depression.

At the end of the decade of the 50s, using Mexican Psilocybes, the reputed Swiss scientist Albert Hoffman not only managed to isolate psilocybin and psilocin while working at Sandoz laboratories, but also created a way to produce it synthetically. Normally, psilocybin fungi are those that contain this alkaloid compound.

Psilocybin molecule
Psilocybin molecule

Magic mushrooms & psilocybin

In fact, a large number of mushrooms – often referred to as magic or hallucinogenic – share as a common feature the presence of psilocybin in varying concentrations. There are about 200 basidiomycete fungi that contain it, and can be found naturally in areas of America, Europe and Asia. Naturally, these mushrooms have been used for centuries as a way to “expand the spirit” in the field of shamanism, psychonautics or psychedelic therapy, and in recent years they have become available to grow at home easily thanks to the mushroom cultivation kits available on the market.

The psilocybin and psilocin content of mushrooms will vary depending on the species, although on average they usually make up between 0.1 and 1% of the weight of dry mushrooms. Normally, psilocybin is consumed orally by ingesting mushrooms, either fresh or dried; if improperly stored when dry, psilocybin degrades rapidly, and will barely remain after a few weeks. If, on the other hand, the dried mushrooms are stored correctly, they can remain stable for months.

As we will see below, its effects have led to it being a substance with a wide tradition of use in spiritual and religious contexts, consumed as part of rituals in order to reach a state of consciousness that allows us to journey on the spiritual plane. The Aztec culture, for example, boasts a great tradition in the use of these mushrooms for ritual purposes, which it calls teonanácatl.

Psilocybe Cubensis in its natural habitat
Psilocybe Cubensis in its natural habitat

Of course, these effects are also widely enjoyed in a recreational context, especially popular during the hippie movement of the 1960s. However, there are a wide range of possible therapeutic or medicinal uses that can be given to these compounds, which means that nowadays they are firmly in the sights of the scientific community.

Effects of psilocybin

Psilocybin is a prodrug, which means that once ingested it is transformed into psilocin within the organism. It is absorbed through the mouth and stomach, and its effects are usually felt between 10 and 40 minutes after ingestion, with a variable duration (2-5 hours or more) that depends on factors such as dose, the species of mushroom or one’s own tolerance. For this reason it is always advisable to consume a very small amount the first time to assess the effect achieved and determine whether a higher dose should be used next time. Once absorbed, it is metabolised mainly in the liver where it is converted into psilocin, which in turn is degraded by an enzyme and converted into metabolites that are added to the blood plasma. Its hallucinogenic effects are related to the agonist effect of psilocin on one neurotransmitter in particular: serotonin.

Normally, tolerance to psilocybin develops and diminishes rapidly; only needing a few consecutive days of consuming mushrooms to build up this tolerance, while after a few days of abstinence it will dissipate, once again giving the same effect as before developing tolerance. It is important to mention that several studies have concluded that this substance does not provoke any type of physical dependence, which is always good news for both the recreational/spiritual consumer as well the therapeutic user.

Psychedelic therapy is the use of hallucinogenic substances in psychotherapy
Psychedelic therapy is the use of hallucinogenic substances in psychotherapy

As with other so-called hallucinogenic substances like mescaline or LSD, the effect can vary greatly depending on factors such as the environment or context, the company around us, and our own state of mind. This is something that the first psychologists studying this type of compounds (including the famously controversial Timothy Leary) focused much of their research on, because they very quickly realised the enormous importance of what they called set and setting  when modulating the effect of these substances. After their studies, Leary and his colleagues at Harvard concluded that psilocybin increases an individual’s suggestibility, increasing their receptivity to stimuli, something that Berge (1999) corroborated. In this way, factors such as the dose or the type of fungus will be as important as the set and setting, that is, both the environment and context in which the mushrooms are taken, as well as the individual’s personal mood or state of mind.