Article by Sam Riches, Growth Op
Michael Reynolds* knew he was in trouble when he started losing the feeling in his fingertips.
A musician and multi-instrumentalist, Reynolds had recovered from a case of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder where the immune system attacks the nervous system, about a decade earlier.
Reynold’s initial case led to a five-week hospital stay, followed by six months in a wheelchair, and lasting nerve damage. He was treated with intravenous injections of immunoglobulins — proteins produced by the immune system that attack infecting organisms — and physiotherapy.
After several months of treatment, he made a significant recovery. But then the numbness in his hands returned.
He started cancelling gigs as his condition quickly worsened. Within a week he had almost no feeling left in his fingers. “It was affecting my playing really severely,” Reynolds tells The GrowthOp. “My drumsticks were flying out of my hands. I was very, very worried.”
Frustrated by traditional treatments and previous health care experiences, Reynolds started researching natural remedies. He’d had success using medical cannabis to manage pain symptoms in the past, so when a friend on Facebook suggested he try psilocybin, the ingredient in magic mushrooms, he decided to give it a shot.
After consuming his first dose of psilocybin, the feeling in his fingers started to return. So he took them again the next day, and then again the next day. Each time, he consumed about a gram and a half of mushrooms, a relatively low dose.
“Then it pretty much resolved,” he says. “My hands had full gripping strength. I had a proper feeling in my hands again.”
Since then, he’s managed his symptoms with a few annual doses of psilocybin, he says. He does not have a legal medical exemption, so he’s reliant on sourcing the mushrooms from the illicit market.
At a psychedelics conference several years ago, Reynolds shared his story and asked if anyone was aware of any research regarding psilocybin’s impact on Guillain-Barré syndrome. He wasn’t surprised to hear the answer was no.
“It’s a very niche thing,” he says. “And there’s not a lot of research on it.”
However, afterward, he was approached by a man with terminal cancer who was also taking psilocybin medicinally and growing his own supply. “He didn’t really have a long time left so he was just growing them and giving them to people for free,” Reynolds says.
The man offered Reynolds some of his mushrooms but that supply has since run out. He expresses some frustration about having to acquire psilocybin on the illicit market but he’s had continued success with the therapy.
“The world needs to know that this works,” he says.
Guillain-Barré syndrome is a relatively rare disorder with many unknowns. Most who develop GBS make a full recovery but some symptoms, like vision issues and difficulty swallowing, can persist. In severe cases, it can lead to respiratory failure and death.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, GBS affects about one person in 100,000 each year and can occur at any age.
The cause of the disease is unknown and there is no known cure, though cases usually follow a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection.
A study published in the journal Pathogens late last year cited the only known case of COVID-19 triggering a recurrence of GBS, but there have been many reports of an association between COVID-19 and the disorder.
Dr. Michael Verbora is the medical director at Field Trip Health, a Toronto-based company that develops and delivers psychedelic therapies. He hasn’t used psilocybin to treat GBS clinically or encountered it in medical literature, but he says he’s not surprised to hear it could provide relief from symptoms of GBS.
“There are very good plausible mechanisms by which a disease like Guillain-Barré could get better through a psychedelic drug that has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects in the brain,” he says. “There’s not a lot of research on it but it makes a lot of sense to me.” Dr. Verbora compares Guillain-Barré to multiple sclerosis in that both diseases eat away at the nerve lining, though GBS patients recover, and multiple sclerosis is a chronic condition.
“Inflammation takes place in the brain and it’s an immune reaction. And the proteins, the myelin sheath on the nerve cells, get digested and it affects your whole nervous system,” Dr. Verbora says. “So your peripheral nervous system doesn’t work. You can get sensory changes and motor changes. You can get paralyzed from the neck down.”
Theoretically, through its anti-inflammatory properties, psilocybin could reduce inflammation in the brain and counteract the effects of an autoimmune reaction like Guillain-Barré Syndrome, Dr. Verbora explains.
He adds that he knows patients with Guillain-Barré who find cannabis, and its anti-inflammatory properties, to be helpful.
“It has similar anti-inflammatory effects on the brain tissue,” he says. “But again, unfortunately, the gap in knowledge and research is still there with these plants and botanicals.”
Field Trip is actively researching treating inflammatory issues with psilocybin, he says, along with a number of autoimmune conditions that might benefit from psilocybin and similar drugs.
“Guillain-Barré is probably not going to go anywhere. So it would be really interesting to study, not just this, but any type of neurological disorder,” he says. “It’d be really interesting to know if these anti-inflammatory molecules on the brain have long-term therapeutic effects.”