Psilocybin mushrooms, better known as magic mushrooms, are a class-A drug in most parts of the world. That can be a little hard to take in at first – after all, there are no hypodermic syring es or bags of sinister powder here. Just dried out mushrooms that look innocuous, even a little comical. The relaxation of marijuana rules around the world have led to some calls that psilocybin should also be legalized .

Legal relaxation

Those calls have met with a certain degree of success. Magic mushrooms are legal across swathes of Latin America and the Caribbean, and were decriminalized in several US states earlier this year. They are also legal in truffle form in the Netherlands, and have been decriminalized in Portugal. As a result, it is now possible to buy mushrooms online in more and more countries. The relaxation of legal restrictions has been given added impetus by growing evidence that psilocybin mushrooms could have valuable therapeutic properties.

Promoting nerve growth

It’s important to stress that the research is still in its early stages, but findings from researchers at the University of Malaysia suggest that the bioactive compounds found in certain mushrooms could actually promote nerve growth in the brain and thereby provide some degree of protection against degenerative disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

The study identified 11 different types of mushroom that, when ingested, increased the body’s production of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), a neuropeptide that is primarily involved in regulating the growth, maintenance and survival of specific neurons in the brain .

Lead researcher Professor Vikineswary Sabaratnam said that regular consumption of these mushrooms had the potential to: “ reduce or delay development of age-related neuro-degeneration .” She added that additional trials are called for , but that ultimately, it might be possible to design “ functional food or novel therapeutic drugs to prevent or mitigate the effects of neuro-degenerative diseases. ”

Mitigating risk

Experts in Alzheimer’s research commented that there is no way to prevent or cure dementia, but there are measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of it. These are much the same as the measures taken to reduce the risk of heart disease, and essentially boil down to healthy living – cutting out smoking, taking regular exercise, eating a balanced diet and so on.

Doug Brown, the Research Director at the Alzheimer’s Society welcomed the research carried out in Malaysia, but sounded a note of caution. He acknowledged that the studies found that compounds present in certain mushrooms “ could possibly be beneficial for people with diseases such as Alzheimer's .” However, as almost all the studies to date had been on mice and none had actually involved people with dementia, he said it was too early to draw any firm conclusions.

A return to traditional medicine?

Meanwhile, studies continue. It is worth remembering that there are plenty of cultures that have been using magic mushrooms for therapeutic purposes since time immemorial. It could just be the case that the scientific world is finally catching on.