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Are magic mushrooms the cure to what ails MMA fighters’ brains?

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Former Strikeforce champion and American Top Team coach Muhammad “King Mo” Lawal knows plenty of fighters who’ve used psilocybin mushrooms – not for recreation, but to treat a variety of ailments. He tried them himself for the first time this past year.

“It’s hard to explain – it’s like a reboot,” he told MMA Fighting. “The next day, you feel kind of like a new person.”

Another active UFC fighter, who declined to have his name used publicly, tried psilocybin tea with another former fighter and reported a “very zen type of feeling.” He saw them as something to help anxiety and insomnia, not as a performance-enhancer.

“The only thing you’re fighting there is a nap lol,” he wrote via text.

For former UFC flyweight Ian McCall, magic mushrooms aren’t just something to take the edge off or an under-the-counter medication. They’re a cure-all in a dangerous profession where PTSD and brain damage are parts of the job. And they are a performance-enhancer.

“[Fighters] get into flow state more easily while not taking something like a steroid that would cause them to pop on a drug test, all the while protecting their brain and healing,” he said. “So, it’s a pretty nice setup.”

The U.S. government considers psilocybin a Schedule 1 drug that’s lumped in the same category of heroin and other psychedelics as a compound with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. But attitudes and practices surrounding the fungus are changing amid a push to decriminalize it around the country.

As current and former fighters gather their own data, a scientific study could be the bridge to a new kind of treatment, one that offers a potential solution to the long-term issue of brain health. In the wake of an HBO Real Sports feature and a profile on retired lightweight Spencer Fisher, who suffers from symptoms of brain trauma, UFC President Dana White announced the promotion is “diving in” on the issue. That led to a call to the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research profiled in the HBO story.

In 2000, the Center broke a “decades-long hiatus” by obtaining government approval to conduct psychedelics research. Since then, researchers have released over 60 peer-reviewed studies, many of them on the effect of psilocybin on addiction, depression and even Alzheimer’s disease.

Center co-founder Matthew Johnson told MMA Fighting the research group has been in active talks with the fight promotion about collaborating on a study into the use of psychedelics for brain health. The promotion could provide funding into such a study, though plans are at the very preliminary stage, and the university would control the research.

“My strong impression of the UFC is there’s a genuine interest in exploring methods that can help athletes,” he said.

Now, the challenge is to decide the what, when and how. Should the focus be on fighters who are already suffering from symptoms of brain trauma, or on current fighters? Does the drug merely work on the symptoms of neurological trauma, or does it actually reverse them? Could it protect current fighters from future trauma?

Johnson said there is evidence from animals that psilocybin produces positive changes in the brain by increasing neuroplasticity, or the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization. If the same applies to humans, the drug could be used to treat a variety of disorders that stem from imbalances in brain chemistry. Many of the symptoms of brain trauma overlap with research the group has already conducted.

“There’s a lot going on because disorders like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), that’s one thing with a very firm neurological rooting,” he said. “But with that, you have things like depression and addiction aside from the neurological conditions of CTE and TBI (traumatic brain injury), we have good evidence at this point that psychedelics can help with those behavioral disorders.”

Studying fighters’ experience on psilocybin mushrooms would mirror the work the group does with its other participants, a process that involves and “introspective framework” with “screening, preparation, monitoring, and follow up care.” It could also include imaging of the brain, though Johnson said that hasn’t been determined yet.

“Even if it were to be successful for depression and addiction without improvements in the underlying physiology of CTE, that would still be really important,” he said. “By itself, that would be massive. ... But there’s also this additional potential for improvements in the underlying neurological disorders. There’s a lot to test there.”

Fighters eager to see what the drug could do for them in a clinical setting are most likely in for a wait. Johnson said it could be months before the research group and the UFC hammer out the particulars, the university approves a study, and the government signs off.

“At any point in time, one of those agencies might come up with a concern where you have to change things,” Johnson said. “When you add on a Schedule 1 compound, it’s a pretty good chain of red tape that you have to jump through. But we do it all the time.”

Although the prestigious university has invested in the research group with the idea of “exploring innovative treatments,” other medical professionals urge caution on psychedelics. Sports neurologist Anthony Alessi, who’s served as a ringside physician and consultant with the Connecticut and Mohegan Tribe athletic commissions, told MMA Fighting they “continue to have many harmful side effects” and said he wouldn’t recommend them “until we have more data.”

As for fighting on them, longtime MMA coach and manager Alex Davis is blunt: “Anyone who tries to fight on magic mushrooms is an idiot.”

For those naysayers, McCall’s dream is to see anecdotal evidence of psilocybin’s benefits validated by the scientific and medical community. In the meantime, he’s acting as sort of a mushroom evangelist, helping ailing and healthy fighters use them inside and outside the cage.

Like many of McCall’s previous jobs, it’s one where he has no formal training. His earliest experiences with the beneficial properties of psychedelics was when he was dealing street drugs. After his fighting career ended, he briefly worked in the medical marijuana industry. Now an entrepreneur, he and his fiancee run the company Exocel Bio, which offers a service he’s dubbed “The McCall Method” to a variety of clients.

If you’re a professional fighter, the 36-year-old native of Costa Mesa, Calif., might test out a microdose from 50-500 mg of psilocybin mushrooms to see how you respond to the effects. The goal, he said, is to “stay right outside that zone of being too much.” If those initial doses are received well, he might suggest a higher “performance dose” two or three times in training camp.

Combined with other legal mushrooms reported to be beneficial to the brain and CBD, he said, the process enhances training, reduces inflammation, and sharpens competitive focus. Asked about the potential downside in pairing powerful hallucinogens and professional fighters, he said there were none.

“You’re not going to do harm to yourself or others – you’re going to have a bad performance,” McCall said. “This is just another tool to perform. And that’s where it lies on you not to f*ck this up. You’re a grownup, you’re climbing into a cage, this is your job, so you’ve got to figure out how to do this to your benefit.”

These days, he said, he gets calls not only from current and former fighters, but their spouses. He won’t say how many people he works with or how he connects them to the needed resources, but admits it sometimes involves “civil disobedience.”

“Someone has to do it,” McCall told MMA Fighting. “I healed myself. I wasn’t happy, and I was embarrassing to other people. I changed a lot, and I can show people how I changed. I have to provide at least something for these people.”

When Dean Lister spoke to MMA Fighting on Tuesday, he was on his way to the five-day “BearHeart Vision Quest” retreat. Since the HBO special on which he was featured aired this past November, the UFC vet said he’s become a part of community that embraces the healing properties of psychedelics. Symptoms of head trauma that led him to seek out alternate medicines had subsided, he said, with a weekly regimen of micro-dosing psilocybin and lifestyle changes.

“I really haven’t had a headache from punches,” he said. “Maybe it pushed some barrier through or blocked some signals. I don’t know. But I’m not having any dizzy spells, I’m not having any headaches, and my memory is coming back better.”

For the next generation of fighters, Lister would advise them to take better care of themselves by heeding the symptoms of brain trauma. He didn’t necessarily do that, and now, he’s trying to undo the damage done. He’s not trying to escape, but reboot.

“It’s not about trying to get my head somewhere else,” he said. “It’s about getting it better for where it is right now.”