December 2014

Muscimol – the Santa molecule?

Is Father Christmas a mushroom? All over the world, people grow up being entertained and uplifted by stories of an annual gift-giving character, embodied to many as Santa Claus. Is it really possible that all along he was in fact the embodiment of fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria), that quintessential red cap with white spots, immortalised in popular culture ranging from fairytale illustrations to Mario Kart? The simple answer to this question is “no” – but fly-agaric does play a part in one of the potential inspirations for our modern Santa stories. It all begins with a certain molecule found in fly-agaric: muscimol.

Muscimol is a psychoactive organic compound. When fly-agaric is consumed, the muscimol eventually ends up in the brain. Here, it binds to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors [1]. GABA itself is a neurotransmitter – a chemical responsible for transmitting information across synapses. When GABA binds to the receptors, it acts with an inhibiting effect, calming down excited nerves and giving a person a feeling of being relaxed [2]. Without GABA, we would always feel stressed or anxious. Muscimol acts in a similar way: by binding to the GABA receptors, it triggers a response, though one that is slightly different. As well as initiating a general “relaxed” feeling, the binding of muscimol to GABA receptors causes false signals to be sent in the brain, resulting in an imbalance of neurotransmitters. Because GABA receptors are so widespread, many parts of the brain are affected. And because so many different brain functions are affected, this in turn leads to false perceptions, a.k.a., hallucinations [1]. So yes, this is an article about “magic” mushrooms!

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