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Psilocybin: from ancient magic to modern medicine


Psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine) is an indole-based secondary metabolite produced by numerous species of mushrooms. South American Aztec Indians referred to them as teonanacatl, meaning “god’s flesh,” and they were used in religious and healing rituals. Spanish missionaries in the 1500s attempted to destroy all records and evidence of the use of these mushrooms. Nevertheless, a 16th century Spanish Franciscan friar and historian mentioned teonanacatl in his extensive writings, intriguing 20th century ethnopharmacologists and leading to a decades-long search for the identity of teonanacatl. Their search ultimately led to a 1957 photo-essay in a popular magazine, describing for the Western world the use of these mushrooms. Specimens were ultimately obtained, and their active principle identified and chemically synthesized. In the past 10–15 years several FDA-approved clinical studies have indicated potential medical value for psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy in treating depression, anxiety, and certain addictions. At present, assuming that the early clinical studies can be validated by larger studies, psilocybin is poised to make a significant impact on treatments available to psychiatric medicine.

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Correspondence to David E. Nichols.

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Nichols, D.E. Psilocybin: from ancient magic to modern medicine. J Antibiot 73, 679–686 (2020).

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