They’re known popularly as “magic mushrooms,” but the name refers to the active ingredient found in certain fungi. Psilocybin is a psychedelic compound that has been used in religious ceremonies for thousands of years – as well as a party drug in more recent times.
However, a new study may show a new role for psilocybin: It may be an effective treatment for depression, particularly depression that doesn’t respond to existing drugs.
A potential cure?
A research team from Imperial College London examined 12 clinically depressed people who had all lived with the disorder an average of 17.8 years. None of the study’s subjects had responded to established depression treatments, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs or shock therapy. In the study, the researchers gave their subjects pills containing psilocybin. The patients were fully supported and monitored during the study conducted at a research facility.
The results, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, were startling. All 12 patients showed at least some improvement in their symptoms. Seven of the patients still had positive results three months after the study, and five patients stayed in remission from their symptoms after three months.
However remarkable the study’s findings were, it’s important to remember the psilocybin was administered to the study’s subjects in a controlled environment, a point stressed by study lead author Robin Carhart-Harris, M.D. In an Imperial College press release, Carhart-Harris said, “Psychedelic drugs have potent psychological effects and are only given in our research when appropriate safeguards are in place, such as careful screening and professional therapeutic support. I wouldn’t want members of the public thinking they can treat their own depressions by picking their own magic mushrooms.”
Other potential depression treatments
In 2015, researchers from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil gave six patients with major depressive disorder ayahuasca, a brew made from psychedelic plants. The results found the ayahuasca lessened depressive symptoms hours after consuming the brew, as well as strongly reducing the patients’ depressive scores. The patients reported feeling better three weeks after consuming the hallucinogen.
Additionally, some studies have shown ketamine, an anesthetic with some psychedelic properties, might be able to lift depression. A study published in the journal Science in 2010 found ketamine seems to encourage the brain to produce proteins in areas of the brain governing emotions and behaviors.
What is psilocybin?
According to the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR), psilocybin – and its relative, psilocin – is a hallucinogenic compound found in mushrooms that grow in areas of North America, South America, Southeast Asia and Europe. Users typically consume the bitter mushrooms either whole, sprinkled onto food or brewed into a tea. The mushrooms can also be rendered into a powder, which is then sniffed or prepared into pill form and taken orally.
Psilocybin works by affecting the function of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that chemically resembles psilocybin. A study conducted in 2014 by researchers from Imperial College London in which 15 volunteers were given psilocybin discovered that the substance had several effects on the brain. Areas of the brain involving emotional thinking saw more pronounced activity at the same time as activity in the hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex – a situation similar to the brain’s dream state. Additionally, the study found random, uncoordinated activity in areas of the brain linked to higher-level thinking.
CESAR warns the effects produced by psilocybin can vary depending on the person taking them, their surroundings, past experiences with drugs and even personality. A dose of psilocybin can take up to two hours to take effect, and most doses last between three to six hours.
The importance of treatment
According to the National Institutes of Health, up to 80 percent of the people treated for depression show improvement in their symptoms after a month and a half of treatment. Although treatment-resistant depression is a real disease, there are still options available for those patients. Sovereign Health of California is an expert provider of effective, safe mental health care. For more information, call our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for Sovereign Health. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at firstname.lastname@example.org.