A recent Alaska Airlines flight where an off-duty pilot’s alleged psychedelics-induced outburst exposed passengers and crew to serious risk has prompted the question: What exactly happens to your brain on psilocybin?
Psilocybin, the psychedelic component of magic mushrooms, has been touted as an effective treatment for depression, anxiety, addiction and PTSD.
This is due to the way the compound allows new brain connections, according to the National Institutes of Health.
‘Shrooms activate the brain’s serotonin receptors, which control things like cognition, mood and perception, according to Medical News Today.
People experiencing mental illness typically have less serotonin, or the body’s happy hormone.
While traditional treatment methods, such as taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, can take weeks to months to yield results, researchers have been able to witness neuron connectivity in as little as half an hour with mushrooms, according to reports by CNN.
In theory, the drug rewires the brain — it allows users to gain new perspectives, or “flexible thinking,” experts told CNN.
“Patients with psychiatric disorders, usually their brain is stuck in a circuit that they can’t get out of, and psychedelics break that cycle,” Charles Nemeroff, co-director at the Center for Psychedelic Research & Therapy at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Washington Post.
Despite many unknowns about psilocybin, the groundbreaking laboratory discoveries have resulted in state-regulated therapy programs in Oregon, which became the first state to legalize the drug in 2020, with Colorado following in 2022.
Meanwhile, the positive effects of magic mushrooms have prompted proud users across the country to take mood-boosting micro-doses — or a fraction of what a standard dose would be — to get through the day.
But the psychedelic party-drug-turned-wellness-secret also has its well-known pitfalls, beyond the legality issue. (New Yorkers, beware — it’s verboten here.)
Notoriously, there’s the possibility of a bad trip — including vivid, often frightening, hallucinations.
Magic mushrooms can make the user see, hear or feel things that aren’t real, which can be distressing and cause accidents. At worst, they can induce psychosis, and those who have a history of mental disorders like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are more at risk.
For sleep-deprived, off-duty pilot Joseph Emerson — who allegedly downed magic mushrooms for the first time before boarding an Alaska Airlines flight from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco — it meant he believed he was dreaming.
According to the affidavit, he “pulled both emergency shut-off handles” because he just wanted to “wake up,” putting everyone on board in danger.
Emerson was reportedly on 40 hours of no sleep and had taken the psychoactive mushrooms about two days before boarding the flight. While the drug’s effects typically only last four to six hours, experts believe ‘shroom-induced psychosis can last well beyond when the drug has left the body.
“When a psychotic episode is triggered, it’s not about the effects of the drug at all,” Nemeroff told the Washington Post. “It takes on a life of its own.”
Reactions depend on a number of factors — the person’s mental state, environment, personality and dose of psilocybin they ingested — and risks include paranoia, anxiety, confusion.
“This is why we administer psychedelics in a controlled setting, so that we can make sure people stay hydrated and we can monitor their heart rate,” Nemeroff told the Washington Post.