Found in several species of mushrooms, the compound psilocybin can cause hours of vivid hallucinations. Researchers who published the results in the New England Journal of Medicine called the findings ‘intriguing and sobering’
Those experimenting with magic mushrooms should take heed – a new study has found that the psychedelic chemical psilocybin in them may be able to ease depression.
Researchers who published the results in the New England Journal of Medicine called the findings ‘intriguing and sobering’.
The new study comes on the heels of research published in JAMA Psychiatry in August which found that the same compound psilocybin helped heavy drinkers cut back or quit entirely in the most rigorous test of psilocybin for alcoholism.
The effects were modest and waned over time but they occurred with a single experimental dose in people who previously had gotten little relief from standard antidepressants.
Let’s take a closer look:
What is psilocybin?
Psilocybin, found in several species of mushrooms, can cause hours of vivid hallucinations.
Indigenous people have used it in healing rituals and scientists are studying it.
While it is illegal in the US, Oregon and several cities have decriminalized it. Starting next year, Oregon will allow its supervised use by licensed facilitators.
What did the study reveal?
The study is part of a resurgence of research into potential medical uses of hallucinogenic drugs, and the results echo findings in smaller studies of the mushroom compound psilocybin.
The researchers said larger and longer studies are needed to determine the effectiveness and safety of using psilocybin for depression.
Speaking to The Guardian, professor Guy Goodwin, the chief medical officer at Compass Pathways, the firm that conducted the study, called the results “exceptional.”
Psilocybin promotes “more communication between brain regions,” added Nadav Liam Modlin, also a co-author of the study.
“The findings are both intriguing and sobering,” said Bertha Madras, a psychobiology professor and researcher at Harvard Medical School.
Commenting in a journal editorial, Madras said the study is the most rigorous study to date evaluating psilocybin for treating depression. She was not involved in the research.
How did it work?
The trial saw 1mg, 10mg and 25mg doses given to the 233 people from 10 countries in Europe and North America, with 25mg giving the best results, as per BBC.
Most of the subjects were around 40 years old and had been severely depressed for more than a year, researchers said.
Each swallowed capsules containing one of three doses of psilocybin during a 6-to 8-hour session. Two mental health specialists guided them through hallucinatory experiences.
Some described being immersed in “a dream-like state” that could be remembered, study co-author James Rucker told a news conference.
One participant required a sedative during the session because of anxiety. But the side effects observed — headaches, nausea, anxiety — were generally moderate and disappeared quickly.
Results for the highest and medium-strength doses were compared with those in the very low dose control group. There was no comparison with an inactive dummy drug or with conventional antidepressants, and there were other limitations.
Depression symptoms declined in all three groups, with the greatest initial improvement in the highest-dose group. At three weeks, 37 per cent of high-dose recipients had substantially improved. But those effects weren’t as good as seen in studies of standard antidepressant drugs, and the results waned in the following weeks.
At three months, 20 per cent in the high-dose group still saw substantial improvement.
Side effects, including headaches and nausea, were common in all three study groups. Serious side effects were uncommon but they included suicidal thoughts and self-injury — mostly in participants with a history of suicidal thoughts.
Speaking to BBC, study author and consultant psychiatrist Dr James Rucker said the drug was thought to have “a direct action on the brain, putting it into a more flexible state and providing an window of opportunity for therapy”.
Around 100 million people worldwide suffer from serious clinical depression that does not respond to any available treatments, with 30 per cent of them attempt suicide, as per BBC.
Dr David Hellerstein, a co-author and Columbia University research psychiatrist, said those side effects are not surprising given the intensity of the psychedelic experience from the drug. But he said they underscore the importance of using psilocybin in a medical setting.
“This is not a home run, but it’s very encouraging,” Hellerstein said, noting that improvement was seen after just one dose.
However, he said it’s likely that additional doses would be needed to achieve long-lasting results. That could make use costly, given the need for several hours of medically supervised treatment.
More than 180 studies of psilocybin and other psychedelics for use in depression, PTSD and other mental conditions are listed on a National Library of Medicine website.
Philip Corlett, an associate psychiatry professor at Yale University, said many important challenges remain, including determining whether psilocybin has any real effect on reducing depression.
One theory is that it stimulates portions of the brain that control levels of the mood-influencing chemical serotonin. It also may reconnect brain circuits — but both theories remain to be proven.
“I think we should be taking our foot off the gas a little bit and figure out exactly how they (psychedelics) work in order to optimize it,” Corlett said. “They don’t work for everybody.’’
“It is the strongest evidence so far to suggest that further, larger and longer randomized trials of psychedelics are justified, and that psilocybin may (one day) provide a potential alternative to antidepressants that have been prescribed for decades,” said Andrew McIntosh, professor of psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh.
McIntosh was not involved in the study.
Another expert offered caution.
“We don’t yet know enough about the potential side effects, particularly whether some people may experience a worsening of some symptoms,” said Anthony Cleare, a professor of psychopharmacology in London, who was not involved in the study.
The August study was “the first modern, rigorous, controlled trial” of whether psilocybin can also help people struggling with alcohol, said Fred Barrett, a Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist who wasn’t involved in the study.
More research is needed to see if the effect lasts and whether it works in a larger study. Many who took a dummy drug instead of psilocybin also succeeded in drinking less, likely because all study participants were highly motivated and received talk therapy.
With inputs from agencies
This article originally appeared on https://www.firstpost.com/ and was reproduced here with permission