In 2019, Blei et al. announced that they had isolated new compounds from four species of magic mushrooms, including Psilocybe cubensis.1 Of course, the better-known compounds like psilocybin, psilocin, and baeocystin were present in the mushrooms, but also were some compounds called beta carbolines (ß-carbolines). This groundbreaking discovery has changed the magic mushroom paradigm for psychedelic researchers.
ß-carbolines are naturally occurring alkaloids.2 They are most commonly known as components in the psychotropic beverage ayahuasca. Examples of the ß-carbolines in ayahuasca include harmine, harmane, and harmaline (note: ß-carboline is also another name for the compound norharmane).
Much of the effect of ayahuasca is due to the ability of ß-carbolines to inhibit MAO (monoamine oxidase) enzymes.2,3 This inhibition makes it possible for the psychedelic compound DMT (dimethyltryptamine, another compound in ayahuasca) to move out of the digestive system and enter the circulation.
The ß-Carbolines in Magic Mushrooms
Blei et al. analyzed extracts from P. cubensis, P. mexicana, P. cyanescens, and P. semilanceata. In the extracts, they identified the ß-carbolines cordysinin C, cordysinin D, harmane, harmol, norharmane, and perlolyrine. These compounds were previously isolated from fungi and plants in genera such as Cordyceps, Peganum, and Banisteriopsis,4 but this was a eureka moment in Psilocybe research history.
The Importance of Discovering ß-Carbolines in Magic Mushrooms
When it comes to understanding the effects and potential therapeutic applications of magic mushroom compounds, it’s not just about tryptamines anymore. Now scientists have a new path for further discovery. Consider some of what is already known about ß-carbolines. It deepens the complexity of the already challenging magic mushroom chemical landscape.
ß-carbolines are known to play a role in the development of essential tremor (uncontrolled shaking) and have been implicated in Parkinson’s disease.5 In contrast, a systematic review of the literature conducted by Ferraz et al. in 2019, indicated that ß-carbolines (harmane and harmine, in particular) might have antidepressant effects.6 The authors summarized their findings by saying,
In general, β-carbolines modulate 5-HT and GABA systems, promote neurogenesis, induce neuroendocrine response and restore astrocytic function, being effective when administrated acutely or chronically in different animal models, including chronic mild stress protocols.
Some of these effects of ß-carbolines come from their ability to inhibit the uptake of serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine via competitive inhibition of the receptors7,8
In 2018, a review article by Dai et al. focused on the occurrence, structural diversity, and biological activity of ß-carboline monomers and dimers.9 Their review found that some ß-carboline monomers have many effects, including antitumor, antiparasitic, and antiviral, as well as antioxidant, antidiabetic, and aphrodisiac activity. Interestingly, some ß-carboline dimers have a significantly higher level of bioactivity than their monomeric counterparts.
Further Research on ß-Carbolines From Magic Mushrooms
It’s unknown how ß-carbolines function in magic mushrooms and the ways they may contribute to the overall psychedelic effect. The discovery of these compounds in magic mushrooms will alter the path of psychedelic drug research, perhaps leading to the discovery of even more beneficial effects.