The active component in “magic mushrooms” is psilocybin. A few studies have looked at this compound for treatment of depression. The latest, published in October 2017, comes from Imperial College London, where researchers gave psilocybin to 20 patients whose depression hadn’t responded to other treatments. Of those treated, 19 completed the study and about half of them showed significant improvements for up to five weeks afterward.
“Several of our patients described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment and often used computer analogies,” reported study leader Robin Carhart-Harris, Ph.D., adding that one patient said he felt as if his brain had been “defragged,” like a computer hard drive, while another said he felt “rebooted.” The investigators suggested that psilocybin may actually help reset and normalize the activity of key brain circuits known to play a role in depression. They gave the 19 participants two doses of psilocybin (10 mg and 25 mg), the second dose being given a week after the first. The participants also underwent brain scans before treatment and then again one day after the high dose of psilocybin.
While these results are encouraging, the study was a small one without a control group for comparison. In future studies the team plans to test the drug against a leading antidepressant. Despite the promising findings, the researchers warned patients with depression not to try to self-medicate with magic mushrooms, noting that those in the study had therapeutic backup in case anything went wrong.
Research in the U.S., reported in 2016, showed that a single dose of psilocybin relieved cancer-related depression and anxiety in most of the patients participating. Here the effects were reported to last at least six months. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of cancer patients suffer from some combination of depression and anxiety.
One of the studies, at Johns Hopkins included 51 patients while the other, with 29 patients, took place at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. The Hopkins researchers reported that 6 months after treatment about 80 percent of the participants were less depressed or anxious than they were at the start, and that 60 percent were nearly returned to their normal emotional baseline. Most had been diagnosed with life-threatening cancers that had recurred or spread.
At NYU, the day after treatment, 80 percent of the patients who received psilocybin were no longer clinically anxious or depressed compared to 30 percent of those who were given a placebo.
All the NYU participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups, one of which received psilocybin while the other received a placebo. Neither the patients nor the researchers knew who was given what until the end. Seven weeks later at NYU and 5 weeks later at Hopkins, the patients who had taken the placebo received the psilocybin and vice-versa.
In both studies, the drugs were administered in the hospital, and two staff members remained with the patients for the 8-hour duration of their “trips.” The researchers reported that the more intense the patients’ experiences on the drug, the more marked the decrease in their depression and anxiety. None suffered serious after-effects, although some reported headaches, nausea, vomiting, and anxiety and had transient increases in blood pressure while under the influence of the psilocybin.
The fact that the drug worked so quickly for so many participants was very good news, since most antidepressant medications take weeks or even months to kick in – if they work at all – which they may not in cancer-related mood disorders. The results of both studies are considered preliminary with larger ones needed to confirm the findings. Here, too, the researchers warned against self-treatment with magic mushrooms or other psychedelic drugs, noting that the two studies’ long-lasting results may have been due in part to the extensive support the participants received.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Robin L Carhart-Harris et al, “Psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression: fMRI-measured brain mechanisms.” Scientific Reports, October 13, 2017, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-13282-7
Stephen Ross et al, “Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial.” Journal of Psychopharmacology, December 2016, doi: 10.1177/0269881116675512
Roland R. Griffiths et al, “Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial.” Journal of Psychopharmacology, December 2016, doi: 10.1177/0269881116675513 template-parts/molecules/promo-blurb.twig