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Psychedelics like shrooms could address depression in a way that's fundamentally different from prescription drugs

Shrooms magic mushrooms psilocybinShutterstock

When Clark Martin tripped on magic mushrooms for the first time, he was flanked by two researchers in a small room at New York University.

An avid sailor, Martin said the first few hours of the experience reminded him of a time he’d been knocked off his boat by a powerful wave and lost track of the vessel.

“It was like falling off the boat in the open ocean, looking back, and the boat is gone. Then the water disappears. Then you disappear,” he said.

But the panic was temporary. Over the next few hours, Martin felt overwhelmed by an enduring sense of tranquility and a feeling of oneness with his surroundings.

“The whole ‘you’ thing just kinda drops out into a more timeless, more formless presence,” Martin told Business Insider in January.

That shrinking of the sense of self has been linked with long-lasting shifts in perspective — changes that appear to be related to a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety. That’s according to clinical trials of magic mushrooms’ active ingredient, psilocybin, in cancer patients at Johns Hopkins and New York University. Martin was one of those patients.

David Nutt, the director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit in the division of brain sciences at Imperial College London, told Business Insider in January that a key characteristic of mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, and addiction is overly strengthened connections in some brain circuits — specifically those involved in the sense of self.

“In the depressed brain, in the addicted brain, in the obsessed brain, it gets locked into a pattern of thinking or processing that’s driven by the frontal, the control center,” Nutt said.

Brain scan studies and several clinical trials suggest that psychedelic drugs tamp down on the activity in these circuits, potentially providing relief that may last a few weeks, several months, or even years. For this reason, preliminary research on psychedelics suggests they could one day be used to help treat mental illnesses.

“Psychedelics disrupt that process so people can escape,” Nutt said. “At least for the duration of the trip, they can escape about the ruminations about depression or alcohol or obsessions. And then they do not necessarily go back.”

Researchers say the drugs’ apparent ability to induce powerful, positive changes in personality could offer a way to address the foundations of mental illness, unlike current antidepressant medications that simply treat the symptoms.

“Psychedelic therapy … offers an opportunity to dig down and get to the heart of the problems that drive long-term mental illness in a much more effective way than our current model, which is take daily medications to mask symptoms,” psychiatrist Ben Sessa said at a recent conference in London on the science of psychedelics.

The drugs are not a treatment in and of themselves, Sessa said. Rather, they are a tool that can be used in conjunction with therapy to help people address underlying issues.

“It’s using the drugs to enhance that relationship between the therapist and the patient,” he said.

Julie Holland, a psychiatrist who is currently serving as the medical monitor for a study of MDMA and psychotherapy in veterans with PTSD, said at the conference that she sees the use of psychedelics alongside therapy as a powerful way to address issues that patients may never deal with on existing anti-depressant medications.

Those medications, Holland said, “are sort of sweeping symptoms under the rug. Psychedelic psychotherapy takes the rug out back and beats the hell out of it and vacuums the floor and puts the rug back down.”

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