Hypothesis # 2: It is related to serotonin receptors
Although Brad had his doubts about whether the fungi could really help improve the anosm, he said that if they could, his conjecture would be that it is reduced to the effects of psilocybin in the brain.
The way magic mushrooms create their wild psychedelic effects is by modulating certain serotonin receptors, increasing or decreasing them, or changing how signals are sent from one cell to another.
And serotonin may be involved in some of the regions that process odors.
“Theoretically, if you were activating serotonin signals, and some of those circuits use serotonin, someone could have a change in olfactory perception as a downstream effect of that,” he said.
This idea resonated with Chris von Bartheld, a professor of cell physiology and biology at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, who, like Brad, has been studying COVID-related anosmia.
“Psilocybin is known to have changes in perception, so I could imagine that, let’s say you have COVID, you’ve lost your sense of smell,” he said. “So for weeks or even months, there’s been no activity in your olfactory nerve. And so the parts of the brain that normally receive this information, they realized that, well, nothing goes into it.”
As a result, Chris said, these parts of the brain may stop paying attention.
“So maybe what psychedelic mushrooms do is basically press a reset button,” he said. “And so whatever comes now is perceived … then the cortical areas that normally receive olfactory information are kind of like, ‘Oh, there’s something,’ and then they pay more attention to it.”
In other words, perhaps psilocybin is waking up the part of the brain that processes odors.
Hypothesis 3: None of these!
Brad added that there is a problem with his and Chris’s serotonin hypotheses: they are both brain-centered.
At first, this is exactly where many scientists speculated the problem was: damage to olfactory neurons and possibly to the brain.
But the growing number of studies (including the one Brad worked on) have found, is that COVID-19 does not attack olfactory neurons or the brain, but is infecting cells that support olfactory neurons. And that’s what makes people lose their sense of smell.
“The damage is almost certain to the nose, to the olfactory epithelium, not to the cerebral cortex,” Brad said. “Therefore, a drug that modulates cortical synapses, not involved in the damage, is unlikely to directly affect repair or recovery.”
In other words, a solution aimed at the brain is unlikely to solve a problem located in the nose.
Hypothesis # 4: Everything is an illusion
Get ready for a whiplash, because maybe the explanation has to do with the brain after all.
How, you ask? Doing what the mushrooms do best.
“I mean, he’s a hallucinogen,” Brad said. “And so I was able to see why eating a serotonin-stimulating hallucinogen could give you a perception that could include smell. [smelling]. ”
He added that fungi do not necessarily have to deal with the real problem in order to give people an olfactory perception.
“Whether this is purely a hallucination or an increase in some signage that is happening, I don’t know,” he said.
Pam Dalton, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, had a similar thought.
“The accounts I’ve read often report a gradual increase in smell over several sessions with psilocybin, which, of course, cannot be differentiated from spontaneous recovery or increased awareness of olfactory capacity. “, he said. “I also read stories in which a person ‘knew’ that he was smelling ghostly odors after a fungus experience, but then he began to recognize odors in different situations.”
It is difficult to draw conclusions from these reports without the help of a placebo-controlled randomized trial, he said: “However, there appears to be an increase in sensory experiences more generally from psilocybin and, therefore, there may be some amplification of even weak olfactory signals that people are now able to perceive. “
This theory works best with people who can only smell things while eating mushrooms.
“They say it fades immediately after the fungus experience, which is consistent with a psychogenic origin of the‘ smell experience, ’” Pam said.
Hypothesis # 5: Mushrooms suppress inflammation
The neuroscientist Fred Barrett —The associate director of the Hopkins Center for Psychedelic Research and Consciousness — is an expert on psychedelics. And he has his own intuition about what might be going on.
“The idea that psychedelics could treat anosmia is downright fascinating to me,” he said. “I think there’s a story. There’s a possible explanation for that.”
That is, some recent research indicates that, in some circumstances, psychedelics may have anti-inflammatory properties.
“My understanding of anosmia in the case of coronavirus is [that it’s] due to an inflammation of the olfactory epithelium and the olfactory nerves that connect to the olfactory bulb and return, ”Fred said.
This inflammation could be part of what is causing long-lasting anosmia in some people.
“It simply came to our notice then. And if psychedelics have an anti-inflammatory effect, it is reasonable that adding an anti-inflammatory to the body would improve the effects of an inflammation. And if people are recovering from anosmia through psychedelic use, that would be briefly my guess as to what might be going on. “
Hypothesis # 6: It doesn’t work
Fred also said it could be something much less exciting than that: it could be that fungi do nothing to help the anosm, and it’s all a big coincidence.
“More than the hundreds of thousands and millions of people who have had COVID, and the subset of those people who have had anosmia and the subset of people who have anosmia who take psychedelics,” he said, “maybe a dozen people they took a psychedelic just when they had to recover from the anosm to begin with. “
“Don’t try it at home”
All the experts warned that it was not a question of treating the anosmia with fungi or any other psychedelic.
Only further research will be able to show if any of these ideas hold. Until then, Brad Goldstein, the doctor of the ears, nose and throat, said patients with anosmia should keep their ears on the ground about new treatments.
“I’m optimistic,” he said. “I think maybe we’ll see some really new things coming out before long that we hope will be really helpful.”