Another glimmer of hope in the field of psychedelic research.
Psilocybin, the main hallucinogenic compound in psychedelic mushrooms, could be developed as a new treatment option for those struggling with treatment-resistant depression, according to a new study published in The Lancet Psychiatry.
In the first pilot of its kind, scientists at Imperial College London found that two doses of psilocybin appeared to lift chronic depression in all 12 study participants for three weeks, and in 5 of the volunteers, the effects lasted for three months.
However, it’s important to note that the small sample size and no placebo group for comparison means that the research is only a proof of principle, but it still provides a glimmer of hope for the field of psychedelic research.
"This is the first time that psilocybin has been investigated as a potential treatment for major depression," lead author Robin Carhart-Harris said in a press statement. "Treatment-resistant depression is common, disabling and extremely difficult to treat. New treatments are urgently needed, and our study shows that psilocybin is a promising area of future research.”
According to the study’s senior author, Professor David Nutt, previous brain imaging studies on animals and humans have suggested that psilocybin may have effects akin to antidepressant treatments.
"Psilocybin targets the serotonin receptors in the brain, just as most antidepressants do,” he said in the release, “but it has a very different chemical structure to currently available antidepressants and acts faster than traditional antidepressants."
All 12 participants (6 women, 6 men) had moderate to severe depression for an average of 18 years prior to the study. They had all tried previously treating their illness with traditional antidepressants, but to no avail, and all but one had also received some form of psychotherapy.
First, the patients were treated with a low dose of psilocybin — 10-milligram oral capsules — followed by a 25-milligram dose a week later. The patients took the capsules while lying down in a bed with two psychiatrists sat at either side of them in a special room with low lighting and music.
“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,” Carhart-Harris told Kate Wighton, a writer for Imperial College London.
“I wouldn’t want members of the public thinking they can treat their own depressions by picking their own magic mushrooms.”
Some of the participants experienced side effects like confusion, nausea, and mild paranoia, but these effects dissipated after the drug wore off.
At a 1-week follow-up, all of the patients showed improvement in their symptoms of depression, and 8 of them had achieved temporary remission. By 3 months, 7 patients continued to show an improvement in their symptoms, and 5 were still in remission.
The Guardian reports that one of the volunteers, Kirk Rutter, struggled to come to terms with the death of his mother, despite counselling and medication. He had never taken magic mushrooms before, but thanks to the room layout and music, he felt relaxed by the time he took the psilocybin capsules.
“Both times I experienced something called ‘psychedelic turbulence’. This is the transition period to the psychedelic state, and caused me to feel cold and anxious,” he said. “However this soon passed, and I had a mostly pleasant – and sometimes beautiful – experience.”
The researchers have yet to determine whether the effect of psilocybin is caused by chemical changes in the brain, or if depression is lifted due to a new perspective formed by the psychedelic experience, which people often describe as mystical or spiritual.
Nonetheless, they say the results offer hope for those who struggle with depression that doesn’t respond to conventional treatments.
“The results are encouraging and we now need larger trials to understand whether the effects we saw in this study translate into long-term benefits, and to study how psilocybin compares to other current treatments,” concludes Carhart-Harris.