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Magic mushrooms might be able to help people with severe depression

A small trial has found that a compound made from the mushrooms helped people with treatment-resistant depression.

File photo of magic mushrooms
File photo of magic mushrooms
Image: PETER DEJONG/AP/Press Association Images

MAGIC MUSHROOMS COULD be used to help treat people with severe depression.

A small trial involving 12 people with treatment-resistant depression has found that psilocybin – a hallucinogenic compound derived from magic mushrooms – may offer a new avenue for antidepressant research.

The substance, when given alongside supportive therapy, helped reduce symptoms of depression in about half of the participants three months after treatment.

The study, which is published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal, marks the first time that psilocybin has been investigated as a potential treatment for major depression.

The authors have warned that strong conclusions cannot be made about the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin, but the findings show that more research in this field is now needed.

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.

“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,” Dr Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London, lead author, said.

“Psilocybin targets the serotonin receptors in the brain, just as most antidepressants do, but it has a very different chemical structure to currently available antidepressants and acts faster than traditional antidepressants,” co-author Professor David Nutt added.

Moderate to severe depression

The trial involved six women and six men with moderate to severe depression (the average length of their illness was 17.8 years).

The patients were classified as having treatment-resistant depression, having previously had two unsuccessful courses of antidepressants (lasting at least six weeks). Most (11) of the patients had also received some form of psychotherapy.

Patients were not included if they had a current or previous psychotic disorder, an immediate family member with a psychotic disorder, history of suicide or mania or current drug or alcohol dependence.

Patients attended two treatment days – receiving a low dose of psilocybin (10mg oral capsules), and a higher dose of 25mg a week later.

Psychedelic effects

Patients took the capsules while lying down on a bed, in a special room with low lighting and music, and two psychiatrists sat either side of the bed. The authors said the psychiatrists were present to provide support and check in on patients throughout the process. Patients had an MRI scan the day after the larger dose. They were followed up one day after the first dose, and then at one, two, three and five weeks, and three months after the second dose.

The psychedelic effects of psilocybin were detectable 30 to 60 minutes after taking the capsules. The psychedelic effect peaked after two to three hours, and patients were discharged six hours later. No serious side effects were reported, but nine of the patients experienced confusion, four experienced nausea and four experienced headaches. Two patients reported mild and transient paranoia.

One week after the treatment, all patients showed some improvement in their symptoms of depression. Eight of the 12 patients (67%) achieved temporary remission. By three months, seven patients (58%) continued to show an improvement in symptoms and five of these were still in remission. Five patients showed some degree of relapse.

Read: Depression, bipolar and borderline personality disorder: A long road to diagnosis

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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