Man's paralyzed leg moves again after magic mushroom use at festival

By Julia Ries | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published April 29, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Psychedelics, traditionally studied for mental health, now intrigue researchers for their potential in aiding physical recovery.

  • Scientists suggest psychedelics may aid healing by targeting serotonin receptors, reducing inflammation, and promoting neuroplasticity.

Over the past decade, numerous clinical trials have explored the potential health benefits of psychedelics. Growing evidence shows hallucinogens may help treat mental health conditions like treatment-resistant depression and anxiety. However, the vast majority of studies on the therapeutic power of psychedelics have focused on their use as treatments for psychiatric conditions. Now, scientists are increasingly interested in exploring how the substances may impact physical disabilities. Early evidence, combined with anecdotal reports, suggests that psychoactive drugs may aid physical healing from serious injuries, such as spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries.[][][][]

Outside magazine recently profiled the recovery of mountain athlete Jim Harris, who became paralyzed from the chest down after a snowkiting accident in 2014. After the accident, he lost movement in his right leg—until he took magic mushrooms recreationally at a music festival. Suddenly, he could pick up his right foot, and a muscle in his right hamstring that had been completely unresponsive contracted when he tapped it with his finger.[] 

The effects didn’t fade when the drugs wore off, potentially because the mushrooms helped form new neuromuscular connections—connections that would go on to help the athlete make an impressive recovery. Now, eight years later, Harris can walk around with a cane and is able to ski and mountain bike, a rebound he attributes, in part, to the magic mushrooms he took years ago at the music festival. 

While Harris’s story sheds light on the potential benefits of psychedelics, more research is needed to understand if—and how—these psychoactive drugs could be used to treat serious physical injuries. “We have a suggestion [that] these things may be helpful, and we have some interesting leads on what the mechanisms might be, like how they might promote healing, but we’re just in the first phase of trying to untangle all of this stuff,” Boris Heifets, MD, PhD, a board-certified anesthesiologist at Stanford Health Care, tells MDLinx.

How magic mushrooms may promote physical healing

It’s unclear how, exactly, psychedelics like magic mushrooms and LSD impact pain or injuries, but scientists have zeroed in on a few theories. For one, psychedelics may have a therapeutic effect because they target the body’s serotonin receptor, 5-HT2A. The central nervous system is packed with these receptors: they’re prevalent in regions of the brain that are associated with mental health disorders, and they’re also found in the neurons located in the spinal cord that help govern sensorimotor function. 5HT2A also plays a role in the body’s pain processing pathways (when activated, they inhibit pain) and is thought to regulate skeletal muscle tone.[] []

Some data also suggests that psychedelics may reduce inflammation, which is at the root of many physical disabilities and injuries. Minimizing inflammation, especially in the early weeks of recovery, could theoretically improve healing, says Jennifer Hankenson, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Yale Medicine. Psilocybin, a compound found in magic mushrooms, stimulates neuroplasticity, or the ability for the brain to change and form new, long-lasting neural networks. [][] 

Neuroplasticity is crucial for learning, memory, and recovery from neurological damage, per a Nature report published in 2022. “Neuroplasticity can lead to some recovery or, more rarely, a full recovery after an injury to the brain or spinal cord,” Dr. Hankenson says. The challenge, however, is that enough of the nerves still need to be alive after a spinal cord injury in order to re-form connections. In Harris’s case, it appears that his nerves weren’t completely severed. “We call this an incomplete injury. There is potential for motor recovery after an incomplete injury,” Dr. Hankenson adds.[]

According to Dr. Heifets, these are three very reasonable hypotheses. “We know that these things happen—that neurons do grow new connections after psychedelics, that there are serotonin receptors in the spinal cord…and some evidence that psychedelics can reduce inflammatory processes as well,” he says. That said, it’s hard to causally link these processes to recovery, like regaining use of a limb. “That is far from established,” he adds. 

Finally, some scientists believe that psychedelics change sensory perception in a significant and long-lasting way, says Dr. Heifets. “It could change your relationship with pain,” he says. A lot of people feel like chronic pain hovers over their lives and is unbearable to cope with. Psychedelics could help reframe how they think about and accept their pain. 

The relationship between psychedelics and physical healing

The big question, says Dr. Heifets, is, “Is it the drug or the trip?” Is there something about having a big sensory experience that rewires the nervous system in real time—or could physical healing occur due to a biochemical effect of the drug itself? Is the experience important—the trip, the sensory alteration—is it a pure biochemical effect, do they work to that same serotonin 2A receptor?” Dr. Heifets says. Taking into account Harris’s experience—when he looked at his legs and tried to move them after using magic mushrooms—the therapeutic effect of psychedelics may also be influenced by what people are doing when they use them, Dr. Heifets adds.

These and other questions are currently being investigated but aren’t yet understood. 

The research exploring the impacts of psychedelics on physical disability is in its infancy, and the majority of studies have been conducted on animals, not humans, says Dr. Hankenson. “​​Much of the animal research does not translate into effectiveness in humans,” she adds. There’s a lot scientists don’t know about psychedelics, especially when it comes to pain management and treating physical injuries like Harris’s. “We are still lacking quality randomized trials,” Dr. Heifets says. Plus, there can be significant side effects associated with psychedelics, including paranoia and anxiety, along with, for some, an increase in pain, that must be considered.[][]

Dr. Hankenson is skeptical that psychedelics could be used for all spinal cord and traumatic brain injury patients. We don’t “know much of a nerve connection must be intact for the body to be able to rebuild these connections,” she says. Still, she’s excited about the potential therapeutic effect that psychedelics may have on neurorecovery. “I hope we will continue to delve into the research to better understand how we can help patients utilize these drugs in the appropriate amounts and appropriate settings,” Dr. Hankenson says. 

Harris experienced an unprecedented recovery after taking magic mushrooms. “It clearly did happen, and it’s very hard to ignore the intense coincidence that it happened in relation to psychedelics, but what we just don’t know is if this is something that’s generalizable—and if it could be used as a treatment for lots of patients,” says Dr. Heifets. Harris’s story, along with those of others, provides a compelling signal that psychedelics could potentially be a useful treatment for physical injuries and disabilities. This absolutely deserves further study, according to Dr. Heifets. “But so far it’s just that,” he says. “It’s just a signal, and it needs to be followed up with controlled studies.”

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