When the mind bends

by Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen

Science has its backlashes. Consider nuclear fission, or the drug thalidomide*. Psilocybin is also a discovery that brought trouble with it - though of a very different and milder kind. Psilocybin is none other than the magic referred to in "magic mushrooms". The compound was extracted from psilocybin mushrooms, and its chemical structure resolved in the late 1950s. The effects it had on the human mind were studied extensively by clinical psychiatrists in the 1960s; the intriguing results became known outside the laboratory, and readily adopted by the prevailing counterculture movements. It did take not long, however and understandably so, for magic mushrooms, like LSD, mescaline and other psychedelic drugs, to become illegal, making it very difficult for scientists to carry out research on them. Yet, they had been fast to recognise the beneficial effects psilocybin could have on patients suffering from psychiatric disorders, such as depression or schizophrenia for example. Since the turn of the millennium, and despite the administrative harassments, the interest in psilocybin has been rekindled. Recently, researchers discovered a set of four enzymes involved in the compound's synthesis: psiD, psiH, psiK and psiM.

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