Could magic mushrooms help relieve depression?
Magic mushrooms are seen in a grow room at the Procare farm in Hazerswoude, central Netherlands in this Aug. 3, 2007 file photo. (AP /Peter Dejong)
Published Tuesday, May 17, 2016 11:40AM EDT
The key chemical in “magic mushrooms” might offer a promising new treatment for depression, a small new study from the U.K. suggests.
Magic mushrooms, also called psychedelic mushrooms, contain a power hallucinogenic chemical called psilocybin, which previous research on animals has suggested can have positive effects on mood.
For this study, published in Lancet Psychiatry, researchers at Imperial College London tested the chemical on 12 people who had “treatment-resistant depression” – meaning they had moderate to severe depression but had had no relief after two courses of medications and psychotherapy.
The patients took two doses of the magic mushroom drug, seven days apart. Each time, doctors supervised the patients as the drug kicked in and they went on what the authors called an “inner “journey” of “altered states of consciousness” that lasted several hours.
One week later, all the patients showed some improvement in their depression, with eight of the 12 reporting temporary remission. By three months, seven patients continued to show an improvement in symptoms, including five who were still in remission.
The study authors caution that their study was small and was meant as a “feasibility” investigation to determine if psilocybin was safe and well-tolerated.
The authors warn that hard conclusions cannot be made about the benefits of magic mushrooms from their study, but they say their findings suggest that more research is needed.
“This is the first time that psilocybin has been investigated as a potential treatment for major depression,” lead author Dr Robin Carhart-Harris said in a news release.
Senior author David Nutt, who researches neuropsychopharmacology, said psilocybin is known to target the serotonin receptors in the brain, just as most antidepressants do. But he said it tends to act faster than traditional antidepressants.
The authors note that the study was not a controlled trial. The patients knew they were receiving psilocybin and the psilocybin was not compared with a placebo. As well, five of the patients had previously tried magic mushrooms and may have expected some effect.
Writing in an accompanying Comment, Philip Cowen, a professor of psychopharmacology at the University of Oxford suggested the study may not have been long enough to draw any firm conclusions.
“The data at three-month follow-up (a comparatively short time in patients with extensive illness duration) are promising but not completely compelling, with about half the group showing significant depressive symptoms. Further follow-ups using detailed qualitative interviews with patients and family could be very helpful in enriching the assessment.”