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Could magic mushrooms be used to treat depression?

ByBen Thomas

Jan 15, 2018

Research has recently been published using magic mushrooms, or more specifically the active ingredient psilocybin, to help patients with treatment-resistant depression.

Depression – separate from feeling ‘sad’ or ‘down’ – is a common mental illness that causes the sufferer to experience feelings of extreme stress, anxiety, and unhappiness. It disturbs sleep and appetite,  robs the sufferer of interest and pleasure. Depression rates are increasing worldwide.

Psilocybin is a hallucinogen, which induces the feeling of union with the world. So far, the mind-altering drug has shown promising results even though its effects are unlike current drugs used to treat depression.

Researchers at Imperial College London identified 20 volunteers with moderate to severe treatment-resistant depression, ie: no other treatment is effective.

They gave these volunteers two individual doses of psilocybin and scanned their brains while providing psychological support.

The  findings showed  rapid and enduring improvements in the patients’ symptoms and scans were used to better understand the process on a chemical scale.

SSRIs (selective-serotonin-reuptake-inhibitors), which are primarily used to medically treat depression cause a kind of emotional ‘blunting’ where patients feel numb and disconnected.

The researchers investigated the brains of the volunteers while on SSRIs and found that a key part of the brain involving emotion – the amygdala – was underactive, as if the patients’ brains were suppressing emotions. However, with the psilocybin, activity in the same region increased, suggesting they were confronting and working through these emotions.

They concluded that psilocybin with psychological support is an effective  treatment for depression and allows patients to reconnect with their emotions.

Psilocybin and other psychedelic drugs have been used traditionally by many cultures in medical and religious practices for millennia, but psychiatric research into psychedelic drugs only began in the 1950s.

By 1965 there were more than 1000 clinical studies published that indicated promising therapeutic effects in over 40,000 subjects – mostly on psychological illnesses that are otherwise poorly treated.

Unfortunately, by the 1970s, many western countries had designated psychedelic drugs as controlled substances following the political actions of the Nixon administration. As a result, research was severely restricted and funding became very difficult to obtain.

Thankfully, with advances in neuroimaging, psychedelic research is making a resurgence.

Controlled substances have an interesting relationship with medicine because they are almost all useful in different circumstances.

Ketamine is used as an anaesthetic in children and emergency war-zone surgery, heroin is used as strong pain medication, especially in end of life care, and cocaine is used in nose and tear duct surgery.

At the same time, research into them is challenging due to legislative restrictions.

It is questionable at best that other controlled substances are permitted for medical use, but that psychedelics – and cannabis – are still not. The body of evidence in support of their medical use is reason enough to justify larger studies, if not outright policy change already.

Will the government recognise the potential of these drugs and respond accordingly? Time will tell.

Image: Google Images


By Ben Thomas

PhD Student in the British Heart Foundation Centre for Cardiovascular Science, interested in all things science.

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