New evidence explains how magic mushrooms could treat depression

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There has been a resurgence in research on psychedelic drugs. And the results so far indicate a number of therapeutic benefits. Magic mushrooms, for example, appear promising in their ability to treat severe, treatment-resistant depression. A new study highlights how psilocybin (the main psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms) can lift people out of their depression.

How psilocybin changes the brain

Scientists found that patients with major depression receiving psilocybin-assisted therapy had increased amygdala responses to images of fearful faces. (The amygdala is the emotional centre of the brain.) Authors say this is associated with improvements in mental health.

Previous research indicates that psilocybin can offer depressed patients relief by ‘resetting’ their brain. Lead author Dr Robin Carhart-Harris (who was behind this newer study as well) said:

Based on what we know from various brain imaging studies with psychedelics, as well as taking heed of what people say about their experiences, it may be that psychedelics do indeed ‘reset’ the brain networks associated with depression, effectively enabling them to be lifted from the depressed state.

Patients experienced these benefits after just one day, and continued to experience them five weeks later.

Magic mushrooms compared to antidepressants

It also seems that psilocybin relieves the symptoms of depression in a way quite different from SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) – commonly prescribed antidepressants, which include fluoxetine (Prozac). The study states:

Psilocybin with psychological support was associated with increased amygdala responses to emotional stimuli, an opposite effect to previous findings with SSRIs. This suggests fundamental differences in these treatments’ therapeutic actions, with SSRIs mitigating negative emotions and psilocybin allowing patients to confront and work through them. Based on the present results, we propose that psilocybin with psychological support is a treatment approach that potentially revives emotional responsiveness in depression, enabling patients to reconnect with their emotions.

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SSRIs have sometimes been linked to emotional blunting. Leor Roseman, a PhD student who is part of the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College London (headed by Carhart-Harris), also says:

It is important to emphasize that psilocybin-assisted therapy is a model in which the patient is undergoing a deep psychological process in one or few psychedelic sessions, in which he might have an intense cathartic experience, or peak experience.

Caveats

As promising as these results are, there are still some limitations with the study. Roseman highlights:

The major caveats are a lack of control group, a lack of SSRI group, and that the time point of investigation is only one day after the psilocybin session and not more than that. All of these caveats will be addressed in our next trial.

Increasingly, it is being shown in controlled, clinical trials that psychedelics can improve people’s mental health when all other treatment options have failed. As Roseman points out, we need further research to show how compounds like psilocybin can achieve such impressive results. But as the evidence builds, it is becoming clear why psychedelic-assisted therapy should be taken seriously.

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Featured image via Wikimedia

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