Magic Mushrooms: The Science Behind and How Psilocybin Works in the Brain

Magic mushrooms, also known as psilocybin mushrooms, have been used for centuries in various cultures for their hallucinogenic properties.

These mushrooms contain a compound called psilocybin, which is responsible for their mind-altering effects.

But have you ever wondered how psilocybin works in the brain? We will explore the fascinating science behind magic mushrooms and the mechanisms through which psilocybin interacts with the brain.

Magic Mushrooms

Psilocybin and Serotonin

Psilocybin, the primary compound in magic mushrooms, tightly attaches to serotonin receptors in the brain, crucial for perception, thought, and mood regulation. Moreover, it influences physiological processes like eating, sleeping, and emotions.

Once consumed, psilocybin rapidly converts to psilocin, chemically resembling serotonin. Additionally, psilocin binds to serotonin receptors, particularly the abundant 5-HT2A receptors found in cognition and perception-related brain areas.

In contrast to serotonin, psilocin activates these receptors by direct binding, impacting neuronal communication and overall brain function. The specific effects of psilocybin can vary depending on dosage, set, and environment.

The psychedelic effects of magic mushrooms are believed to stem from psilocin’s interaction with 5-HT2A receptors, resulting in auditory and visual hallucinations, altered time and space perception, and changes in mood and cognition.

Moreover, psilocin’s binding to serotonin receptors indirectly influences other neurotransmitter systems such as dopamine and glutamate, contributing to the intricate effects of psilocybin on brain function.

It is important to note that the complete understanding of the relationship between psilocybin, serotonin, and brain function remains a subject of ongoing research.

Current studies seek to unravel the precise mechanisms through which psilocybin acts on serotonin receptors and how these interactions contribute to its therapeutic potential for various mental health conditions.

Increased Neuroplasticity

One intriguing aspect of psilocybin’s effects on the brain is its potential to enhance neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize its structure and function in response to experiences, learning, and environmental changes. It involves the formation of new neural connections and the modification of existing ones.

Studies have suggested that psilocybin can promote neuroplasticity through various mechanisms:

Stimulation of Growth Factors

The synthesis of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein essential for fostering the development, survival, and flexibility of neurons, has been discovered to be stimulated by psilocybin.

Increased levels of BDNF can lead to the growth of new dendritic spines, which are small protrusions on neurons that facilitate communication between them.

Synaptic Remodeling

Psilocybin has been shown to induce changes in the structure and organization of synapses, the junctions where neurons communicate.

Research using animal models has demonstrated that psilocybin can increase the density and complexity of dendritic spines, leading to enhanced synaptic connectivity.

Functional Connectivity

Functional connectivity refers to synchronized activity among different brain regions. Psilocybin modifies functional connectivity patterns, increasing communication between typically unconnected brain areas.

Additionally, this heightened connectivity promotes novel information processing and contributes to creative and insightful experiences during psychedelic journeys.

Furthermore, psilocybin’s potential enhancement of neuroplasticity has significant implications for mental health and well-being.

Neuroplasticity plays a crucial role in learning, memory, and adaptation, and disruptions are implicated in various psychiatric disorders.

As a result, psilocybin’s ability to encourage neuroplasticity may provide treatment for melancholy, anxiety, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It assists in rewiring the brain, forming new pathways, and breaking away from unhelpful habits.

Enhanced Emotional Processing

Psilocybin has been shown to enhance emotional processing and increase emotional openness. It can facilitate the release of suppressed emotions and memories, allowing individuals to confront and process them.

This emotional openness and the accompanying therapeutic insights have been utilized in psychedelic-assisted therapy to treat depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Activation of the Default-Mode Network

The brain’s default mode network (DMN) has been demonstrated to be activated and disrupted by psilocybin, the main ingredient in magic mushrooms.

The DMN is a group of brain areas that are frequently active while a person is at rest and not performing any particular activity. It entails digesting autobiographical information, self-reflection, and introspection.

Disruption of the DMN

Psilocybin disrupts the DMN’s stable connection and operation. The blurring of the boundaries separating the self from the outer world, which results in the sensation of ego dissolution or death that some individuals experience during psychedelic experiences, is assumed to be the outcome of this disruption. This perturbation may impair typical cognition and perceptual routines.

Paradoxical Activation

Interestingly, while psilocybin disrupts certain aspects of the DMN, it also paradoxically increases the activity in other areas within the network.

Studies using brain imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have shown increased activation in specific DMN regions, including the posterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex, during psilocybin experiences.

Sense of Self and Mystical Experiences

Researchers connect the activation of DMN regions during psilocybin experiences to self-reflection and introspection, suggesting their role in self-referential thinking, autobiographical memory, and the sense of self. Increased activity in these areas may contribute to profound mystical and spiritual encounters reported by individuals on psilocybin.

It’s important to note that the precise mechanisms of psilocybin’s impact on the DMN remain unclear. Therefore, the complex relationship between the DMN and altered states of consciousness induced by psilocybin is actively researched.

The activation and disruption of the DMN highlight the intricate interplay between brain networks and subjective experiences. Psilocybin, by influencing the DMN, offers unique opportunities for self-exploration, introspection, and the reevaluation of perspectives and beliefs.


Researchers rapidly advance the science of magic mushrooms and psilocybin, exploring the interaction with serotonin receptors, disrupting the default mode network, promoting neuroplasticity, and enhancing emotional processing.

Moreover, comprehending these mechanisms is vital for future studies and the potential therapeutic uses for mental health disorders.