Psilocybin: magic mushrooms to edge out depression drugs with natural ingredients?
04 Jul 2022 --- Psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms, may have therapeutic effects on the brain and could help people suffering from depression, a UK study has revealed.
Led by researchers at Imperial College London, the scientists believe they may have untangled how psilocybin exerts its therapeutic effects on the brain.
“These findings are important because, for the first time, we find that psilocybin works differently from conventional antidepressants – making the brain more flexible and fluid, and less entrenched in the negative thinking patterns associated with depression,” says Professor David Nutt, head of the Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research.
“This supports our initial predictions and confirms psilocybin could be a real alternative approach to depression treatments.”
The findings, published journal Nature Medicine, are a “promising advance for psilocybin therapy”, with the effects replicated across two studies. The researchers explain that patterns of brain activity in depression can become rigid and restricted and that psilocybin could potentially help the brain to break out of this rut in a way that traditional therapies cannot.
“Even the best-performing antidepressant drugs show modest efficacy, non-negligible side effects, discontinuation problems and high relapse rates, highlighting the need for new, improved treatments,” the study notes.
A different approach to depression
Researchers analyzed brain scans from close to 60 people receiving treatment for depression.
All participants received psilocybin, and a randomized control trial in more general depression that compared psilocybin with the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) escitalopram.
Participants also received talking therapies with registered mental health professionals, and brain scans were taken before and then one day or three weeks after participants received psilocybin therapy.
Researchers found psilocybin helps to “open up” depressed people’s brains, even after use, enabling brain regions to talk more freely to one another.
Participants who responded to psilocybin-assisted therapy showed increased brain connectivity not just during their treatment but up to three weeks afterward. This “opening up” effect was associated with self-reported improvements in depression.
“The effect seen with psilocybin is consistent across two studies, related to people getting better, and was not seen with a conventional antidepressant,” notes the paper’s senior author Professor Robin Carhart-Harris, former head of the Imperial Centre for Psychedelic Research who is now based at University of California, San Francisco, in the US.
Both trials found improvements with psilocybin therapy, as measured by improved participant scores on clinical questionnaires. Analysis of the brain scans revealed altered communication or connectivity between brain regions.
Magic mushrooms for brain communication
Researchers found an increase in communication between those brain regions that are more segregated in depressed patients.
They found a correlation between this effect and symptom improvement in both trials – while the strength and duration of effect varied between participants, it was strongest in those who reported an improvement in symptoms.
The researchers added that while follow-up data is still being analyzed for participants, initial changes in brain activity one day following treatment were a good predictor of whether a person would still show improvement at six months.
“We don’t yet know how long the changes in brain activity seen with psilocybin therapy last, and we need to do more research to understand this. We do know that some people relapse, and it may be that after a while, their brains revert to the rigid patterns of activity we see in depression,” Carhart-Harris adds.
Future research: beyond depression
Psilocybin is one of a number of psychedelics being explored as a potential therapy for psychiatric disorders.
Recently, an international review of alternative psychological treatments found nutraceuticals and phytoceuticals could supplement mental health treatment. At the same time, it revealed there were fewer financial incentives for supplements compared to pharmaceuticals, which have long dominated treatment options.
“One exciting implication of our findings is that we have discovered a fundamental mechanism via which psychedelic therapy works not just for depression – but other mental illnesses, such as anorexia or addiction. We now need to test if this is the case, and if it is, then we have found something important,” Carhart-Harris underscores.
Patients with depression should not attempt to self-medicate with psilocybin, as taking magic mushrooms or psilocybin in the absence of careful safeguards may not have a positive outcome, the researchers note.
With consumers increasingly turning to supplements for mood amid increasing anxiety and depression levels dubbed as “epidemic,” there is an observed interest in psilocybin. Companies are experimenting with how to best utilize mushrooms in a manner that is legal – until regulatory developments catch up with consumer demands.
Last year, Health Canada approved an amendment to Nutrasource Pharmaceutical and Nutraceutical Services’ controlled drugs and substances dealer’s license, allowing it to investigate a number of controlled psychedelic and psychostimulant drugs and pain management drugs. These include synthetic cannabinoids, psilocybin, psilocin, ketamine, LSD, methamphetamines, opioids and DMT.
By Andria Kades
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