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UC Berkeley researchers to have human subjects in psilocybin study

Exploring psychedelics, magic mushrooms; UC Berkeley finding out how they affect the brain
Exploring psychedelics, magic mushrooms; UC Berkeley finding out how they affect the brain 04:13

A UC Berkeley research center seeks to understand why psilocybin alters the visual experience in a study with human subjects.

The study marks UC Berkeley's first experiments on humans with a Schedule I substance — those which the federal government considers to have no currently accepted medical use. The drug appears in select mushrooms, often dubbed "shrooms" or "magic mushrooms," according to the National Institutes of Health.

Upon ingestion, psilocybin can warp users' sense of time, mood and perception, leading them to see or hear things that are not real. Now having surmounted various regulations surrounding experiments with controlled substances on humans, research at UC Berkeley's Center for the Science of Psychedelics is underway and staff are recruiting volunteers, center director and UC Berkeley professor Michael Silver said.

With a millennia-long record of ritual and ceremonial use, psilocybin's potential to treat certain mental disorders has seen new research interest, according to the National Institutes of Health. This study, Silver said, does concern the drug's possible therapeutic benefits, but may impart more information on its medical uses by illuminating how psilocybin may work in the brain.

"Our area of interest is the visual system in the brain," Silver said. "Psychedelics are a wonderful tool for understanding this."

The study seeks to test the relaxed beliefs under psychedelics hypothesis, Silver said. The hypothesis suggests psilocybin's perception-altering qualities work by loosening users' deeply rooted beliefs about how the world should appear and, thus, make them more open to alternative ways of interpreting stimuli, he added.

To research the drug, Silver said volunteers ingest a dose of psilocybin and enter a magnetic resonance scanner. With the scanner, researchers can monitor volunteers' brain activity as they respond to images presented by staff.

The drug, however, can raise blood pressure and induce bouts of fear, agitation, confusion and nausea, according to the National Institutes of Health. During research sessions, Silver said, volunteers are accompanied by a medical doctor and can halt the session at their discretion.

Silver said the study comes after ensuring it fully complied with campus, state and federal regulations - a process which he said took about three years. Before this study, he added, UC Berkeley researchers had limited psilocybin experimentation to only animal subjects.

Having met the requirements for this study, Silver said attaining approval for psilocybin research on human subjects at UC Berkeley should not take as long in the future.

"My love is science, not the administrative part of it," Silver said. "I understand the importance of that, but the reason I am personally motivated to do this is to learn about the brain and to learn about the visual system and how we create conscious experience."

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