Can magic mushrooms treat depression?
Tune in and drop out of existing depression medication. So suggests a leading researcher into the effects of magic mushrooms on a range of mental illnesses.
Speaking at the New Scientist Live event in London, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial College’s Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology, put forward a case for the use of psychedelics on treating the brain – not as a nexus of problems, but as a holistic whole that can be healed through self-reflection.
Last year Carhart-Harris’ team ran the first ever clinical trial of psilocybin (magic mushrooms) as a treatment for depression. He emphasised, however, that the effects of magic mushrooms span millennia, from ancient societies down to the work of chemist and LSD-creator Albert Hofmann in the 1950s. Interest in the use of psychedelics faded in the latter decades of the 20th century, but new attention is growing.
From his team’s trials, Carhart-Harris says that the use of psychedelics show “promise for a range of different disorders,” including OCD, depression and addiction. He claimed this “speaks to this idea that perhaps there’s something common in these disorders, and how psychedelics could be effective for them”, and that it encourages the perception that mental health can be thought of in a holistic way.
Carhart-Harris pointed out that the chemical structure of psilocybin, as well as LSD, is remarkably similar to the naturally occurring serotonin in our bodies. Whereas some depression medication purposefully blocks serotonin receptors, psychedelics stimulate these receptors.
Compared to SSRIs (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), Carhart-Harris characterised psychedelics as “more about getting to the source of the stress”, rather than acting as a band-aid over the receptors for short-term coping.
Perhaps one crucial part of this is how psychedelics bring about a sense of “dissolution”, where a person’s ego breaks apart during a period of intense self-reflection. “This story [of the self] unravels,” said Carhart-Harris. “People can have insight about their own development.” He compared this to meditation, where there is also a measured drop in the brain network that is associated with ego dissolution.
Carhart-Harris emphasised that there is a multiplicity of contextual factors behind a patient’s response to the psychedelic, from personal suggestibility to environmental aspects such as music. “Although given in the right way these drugs are safe, there is a way to take them that can be unsafe, when attention isn’t given to the context.”
The psilocybin pilot trial at Imperial involved two doses of the psychedelic for a group of subjects who had shown treatment-resistant. Doses were separated by one week, and brain imaging was taken before and after the treatment. Within three weeks 50% of the subjects were in remission, with a marked drop in depression severity. After six months the depression severity has risen but was still below the initial level.
Carhart-Harris closed his talk with patient quotes that mentioned a “reset” feeling. One patient compared the process to defragmenting a computer.
Earlier this month a British startup announced it would be launching a pioneering trial across eight European countries, covering 400 patients with treatment-resistant depression. Speaking to the FT, one of the founders of Compass Pathways, the company behind the trial, said: “This is not about going back to the 1960s, but about taking forward 21st-century science with digital innovation and medicines now that we understand how they work.”
New Scientist Live runs for the next four days at the ExCeL Centre in London. Tickets are available here.