According to a preliminary study, psilocybin, the main ingredient in magic mushrooms, may help to soothe symptoms of depression.
The research had a small sample size of only 20 patients and no control group who got a placebo for comparison’s sake. That makes it hard to draw solid conclusions about if or how well the hallucinogenic compound really works at fighting depression. However, brain-scan data from new research suggests that psilocybin does impact brain networks that are associated with depression.
Study author David Nutt, a professor of psychopharmacology at Imperial College London, states that “larger studies are needed to see if this positive effect can be reproduced in more patients. But these initial findings are exciting and provide another treatment avenue to explore.”
The researchers focused on 20 people who had tried normal depression treatments and found them to be lacking. Each participant, classified as having treatment-resistant depression, took a 10-milligram dose of psilocybin, followed by another 25 milligrams one week later – enough to cause hallucinogenic effects.
Before treatment and the day after the second dose, the participants all underwent brain scans to measure changes in blood flow and connections between brain regions. Nineteen out of the twenty patients made it through the whole study.
The most striking finding was that taking psilocybin, which occurs naturally in hundreds of mushroom species, decreased depression symptoms significantly. Scores on the Quick Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology, the most commonly used depression-screening measure, dropped by an average of about 10 points out of 27 a day after the second dosage. The researchers reported that all patients experienced some decline in their symptoms, and 12 experienced at least a 50% drop.
Some scientists have suggested that this could be due to a honeymoon-like period in the days following a psychedelic experience. Therefore, to see if there were any brain changes linked to the associated mood improvements and stress relief, the researchers scanned the participants’ brains a day after the doses were taken.
The results showed a reduced blood flow to the left amygdala, an almond-sized region in the brain that controls emotion and fear. The researchers also saw increased chatter in the default-mode network – a network of brain areas most active when people are daydreaming or thinking about something. During electroconvulsive therapy, in which electrical currents are run through the brain as a depression treatment, the default-mode network rapidly becomes less functional and then recovers beyond its baseline condition. Something similar might happen with psilocybin, which may initially disrupt and then reset this network, giving the brain a fresh start that correlates with fewer depression symptoms even as long as five weeks after treatment.
New Form of Treatment?
In a statement, study leader Robin Carhart-Harris, the head of Psychedelic Research at Imperial College, said that “based on what we know from various brain-imaging studies with psychedelics, as well as taking heed of what people say about their experiences, it may be that psychedelics do indeed “reset” the brain networks associated with depression, effectively enabling them to be lifted from the depressed state.”
However, this treatment isn’t ready for prime time. Without a control group, the researchers can’t be sure that the patients weren’t just experiencing a placebo effect. Therefore, the researchers suggest that this study should be seen as a first step toward exploring psychedelic drugs as a treatment for depression.
Nevertheless, having said that, this is not the first study which suggests that there are some benefits from psilocybin for people with depression. Back in 2011, a similarly small study found that a year after taking psilocybin, participants reported higher life satisfaction and well-being, as well as increased spirituality and improve familial relationships. Those researchers concluded that psilocybin seems to prompt a sense of connectedness and meaning, which could be a mental health boon.
However, the hallucinogen could also cause dangerous side effects. A 2017 study conducted by Johns Hopkins University found that of more than 2,000 people who’d had a “bad trip” on psilocybin, 10% felt they’d been a danger to themselves or others during their episode.
Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine, stated that “considering both the negative effects and the positive outcomes that respondents sometimes reported, the survey results confirm our view that neither users nor researchers can be cavalier about the risks associated with psilocybin.”