Scientific fraternity looks at mushroom for mental health issues treatment
The estimated 20 per cent of Jamaicans currently struggling with depression and anxiety stand to benefit from the country’s mushroom industry, but first, those promoting its benefits will have to conduct clinical trials and convince regulators to remove the ban that prevents its use as a drug.
Jamaica currently cultivates several types of mushrooms, but the psilocybin mushrooms, also known as magic mushrooms, is of particular interest to many because of the potential it holds for treating a wide range of medical and mental conditions.
“We are really looking to push forward not only psilocybin as a use for helping the mental-health crisis that was here before COVID and has, unfortunately, been exacerbated by COVID, but also the burgeoning industry in the tropics … ,” said co-founder of Wake Network, Nick Murray. His company promotes the use of medicinal mushrooms for wellness.
He said the psilocybin mushroom also has potential for the treatment of other medical complications like cancer and diabetes.
Head of the Department of Psychiatry at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Dr Roger Gibson, sees many opportunities for the use of psilocybin locally.
“We have persons who have conditions for which psilocybin has a lot of potential,” he noted during a webinar on therapeutic mushrooms, which was hosted on Wednesday by Jamaica Promotions Corporation and Wake Network.
TREATMENT OF ANXIETY
Gibson is principal investigator for exploring the use of psilocybin in the treatment of anxiety and depression.
“Mushroom growing is an activity that has taken off in Jamaica, so that means that we have the raw product, so to speak, with which we can make drugs suitable for research in the context of clinical trials,” he said.
Chief executive officer of Wake Jamaica Limited, Pauline Smith, said that scores of women and youth are currently engaged in commercial mushroom cultivation, particularly in north Manchester.
“The new mushroom industry in Jamaica did not just kind of happen. This has been concentrated work from a number of key agencies and the diligence, hanging in there of poor women and youths across the rural areas, they have all been a part of it,” she noted.
Agencies that have supported the effort include Food For the Poor, USAID, and the Social Enterprise Boost Initiative.
“We are growing a wide variety of mushrooms. We are delivering mushrooms to the hotels. We are producing mushrooms that are medicinal mushrooms, and psilocybin is just one part of what it is that we are doing,” she shared.
She noted that Jamaica offers some unique features for growing mushrooms all year round, but there are also some challenges.
“Jamaica doesn’t have the normal substrates that are used to grow mushrooms in North America. In North America, you have bran, you have straw, you have hardwood sawdust. None of this is available in Jamaica. We have been challenged over the last 10 years to find ways of converting tall grasses and a variety of interesting substrates into making the food and the conditions ideal for growing mushrooms in Jamaica,” she said.
SCHEDULE I DRUG
Psilocybin is classified as a Schedule I drug under the United Nations 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, which are flagged as not approved for medical use and which present the potential for abuse, especially if not administered under medical supervision. As at February 2018, there were 184 state parties to the convention, including Jamaica.
Dr Olga Chernoloz, a neuroscientist and pharmacist based in Canada, noted that although psilocybin was banned in the US and has been classified as illegal, several universities and pharmaceutical companies have started conducting clinical trials, and some cities have legalised its use. In Canada, certain groups of medical patients are allowed to use it.
“It is quite a safe, non-addicting drug,” Dr Chernoloz said, before adding that “recognising the immense clinical potential of this substance, the Food and Drug and Administration has fastracked research into potentially bringing this medication to the market so that more people can find help.”
Head of the Natural Product Institute in the Faculty of Science and Technology at The UWI, Mona, Professor Rupika Delgoda, said she has an interest in understanding the basic science of the product. This includes “understanding and optimising growth conditions for all the different strains of mushrooms”.
She said there is need for standardisation and noted that mushroom could benefit from the 2018 amendment to the law, which allows some natural-health products to be used as nutraceuticals.
“We are very keen to ensure that this industry develops the right standards for safety and efficacy,” she said.
Divisional Manager, Product Research and Development, at the Scientific Research Council, Dr Charra Watson, would also like to see the industry develop.
“We are heavily looking at what the profile of the mushrooms in Jamaica is [and] looking at the identification and classification of the particular strains,” she said
“We don’t want the same thing to happen [like] with cannabis, where persons have material and can’t test it, so material can’t move because we have those kinds of limitations. We want to avoid that, and SRC has an important role to play,” she said.