Researchers think magic mushrooms could have the potential to treat depression

  • In November 2018, researchers at Johns Hopkins published a paper urging the federal government to make psilocybin, the main psychoactive element in magic mushrooms, legally available in clinical settings, Business Insider reported.
  • Previous studies support this suggestion, finding patients to be less anxious and in better moods after using psilocybin.
  • Lead psilocybin researchers believe these findings warrant more research since other depression treatments aren’t effective for everyone, Matthew Johnson, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, told INSIDER.

Magic mushrooms have been on the psychedelic scene for decades, but they’re currently gaining traction in the medical community as a potential treatment for depression. In November 2018, researchers at Johns Hopkins published a paper urging the government to make psilocybin, the main psychoactive element in magic mushrooms, legally available in clinical settings, Business Insider reported.

If the government changed psilocybin from its current status as a Schedule I drug (one with no currently accepted medical use, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration) to a Schedule IV drug (one considered to have a low potential for dependence or abuse), “regulatory science has the potential to facilitate innovative therapeutic breakthroughs by replacing fear and misinformation with scientifically based conclusions and facts,” the researchers wrote.

Small studies have found psilocybin to help some people with anxiety and depression

The Johns Hopkins’ recommendation would allow for more research on the topic, though some studies have occurred. A small study, published in November 2016 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, looked at 29 cancer patients who reported feeling depressed or anxious due to their cancer diagnosis. For seven weeks, each patient went through psychotherapy sessions and received either a single 0.3 mg dose of psilocybin or niacin (vitamin B) afterward. Researchers noticed that the patients who received psilocybin had an immediate reduction in anxiety and depression, which held at the six-and-a-half-month follow-up.

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In another small study, published in 2006 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, researchers gave 36 medically and psychiatrically healthy participants 30 mg of psilocybin, with dose adjustments made depending on patients’ weight. The psilocybin was distributed during two or three separate sessions, along with methylphenidate hydrochloride, a drug that decreases impulsiveness. At a two-month follow-up, 50% of the participants said their psilocybin experience improved their personal well being or life satisfaction moderately and 29% said it improved their life satisfaction “very much.”

One potential reason psilocybin has this effect, as Business Insider previously reported, is its ability to change the way information moves through the brain. In the piece, author Erin Brodwin compared the brain to a series of highways. Normally, traffic tends to buildup on some highways more than others. But when a person uses psilocybin, the brain reroutes some of the traffic onto the underused highways, freeing up space on the overused ones. For a person with depression, overused highways can lead to more negative thoughts, self-criticisms, and overwhelming feelings, so psilocybin has the potential to help decrease those effects.

Existing treatments for depression, like SSRIs, aren’t always effective

Woman holding pills in handBojan Milinkov/ShutterstockAccording to a 2015 report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), anti-depressants relieve depression symptoms for about 40 to 60 out of every 100 people after using them for six to eight weeks.

Since current depression treatment methods are limited to antidepressants, psilocybin could be the new frontier of treatment for the condition.

“In terms of treatment of depression, we’ve been in the same position we’ve been in since the 1950s,” Matthew Johnson, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences and an author of the psilocybin and cancer study, told INSIDER.

According to Johnson, the depression treatments we use today were created in the 1980s and “are working on the same general mechanism” as the antidepressants that were first created in the 1950s. These particular antidepressants are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs, and increase levels of the mood-boosting hormone serotonin in a person’s brain, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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Johnson added these drugs also take a few weeks to work for someone who is just starting to use them, which isn’t helpful for someone dealing with suicidal thoughts. According to a 2015 report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about 40 to 60 out of every 100 people notice an improvement in depression symptoms after using antidepressants for six to eight weeks.

“Something with more immediate effects has a huge benefit as a tool in the therapeutic toolbox,” he said.

He also said the risks associated with psilocybin treatments are low, based on current research. Since the treatment is done in a single session with a facilitator and in a closed room setting, he believes this option sets itself apart from giving a person a pill to take every day on their own.

Current clinical psilocybin treatments are conducted in a therapeutic fashion, but they yet to be tested in a real-world setting

TherapyShutterstockWhen a person is given psilocybin in a clinical setting, the process mimics a cognitive therapy session, Johnson explained.

When a person is given psilocybin in a clinical setting, Johnson said the process mimics a cognitive therapy session. For the cancer-diagnosed participants in his study, each first spoke with a therapist about their life and potential topics that could arise during the psilocybin trip. “It can be one of the most joyful experiences but also one of the most frightening of one’s life so we prepare them for that variety that can happen and how to handle the difficult if they arise,” he explained.

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The participants were then given art books and music to keep them calm while they waited for the psilocybin capsule to take effect. Once the psilocybin trip began, participants were invited to lay on a couch in what Johnson described as a “living room-like setting” and given eye masks and headphones with music.

A facilitator remained in the room throughout the trip, which took five to six hours. During that time, the facilitator checked in every 30 minutes, asking the participants how they felt and reminding them that they were in a safe space. A day after the experience, participants wrote a report about what they experienced. A day later, researchers followed up via phone to discuss the effects of the session.

Unfortunately, the setting described above does not mimic real-world scenarios, so it is unclear how effective psilocybin treatments would work in a normal setting.

Not everyone is a good candidate for psilocybin treatments

Although existing psilocybin research suggests the drug could have potential as a future depression treatment, the method isn’t the best option for everyone, Johnson said.

People with a family history of psychotic disorders like schizophrenia shouldn’t use psychedelics. People with high blood pressure may also be bad candidates for the treatment since psilocybin can increase a person’s blood pressure, Johnson said. (Researchers screen for these conditions before choosing study participants.)

Still, for those who are able to try psilocybin, it could offer benefits that current depression treatments do not. More large-scale research on psilocybin’s uses and effects must be done, but Johnson thinks its treatment potential is promising.

“It’s astonishing the preliminary results we’ve seen which are consistent with earlier research.”

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