Groovy News: Shrooms Help Reset Depressed Brain

By: Alia Hoyt

A study shows that psilocybin (the drug in magic mushrooms) provides relief for severely depressed people. TorriPhoto/Getty Images
A study shows that psilocybin (the drug in magic mushrooms) provides relief for severely depressed people. TorriPhoto/Getty Images

Depression treatment is better now than ever before, thanks to a variety of prescription drug options and improved therapy techniques. But in some cases, these proven therapies fall short. However, magic mushrooms just might be the key to giving those depression sufferers some much-needed relief, according to a recent study by researchers at Imperial College London.

Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the small study looked at the effects of psilocybin on 19 patients for whom conventional depression therapies failed. (Psilocybin is the psychoactive compound that is naturally present in 200 types of mushrooms.) The researchers describe the results as "rapid and sustained." In fact, within weeks, the patients reported fewer depression symptoms, with several of them describing a "brain reset." This reportedly lasts for up to five weeks post-treatment.

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Other studies have shown positive effects from using LSD and MDMA (the active ingredient in ecstasy) to treat some mental illnesses. But this is the first study to look at the effect of psilocybin on depression.

"We have shown for the first time clear changes in brain activity in depressed people treated with psilocybin after failing to respond to conventional treatments," says Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial and leader of the study, in a press release. "Several of our patients described feeling 'reset' after the treatment and often used computer analogies. For example, one said he felt like his brain had been 'defragged' like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt 'rebooted'. Psilocybin may be giving these individuals the temporary 'kick start' they need to break out of their depressive states and these imaging results do tentatively support a 'reset' analogy. Similar brain effects to these have been seen with electroconvulsive therapy."

Participants were given two doses of psilocybin (serotonin agonist)a week apart. Functional MRIs done after each dose showed reduced blood flow in certain areas of the brain, particularly the amygdala, which is credited with processing fear, stress and emotional responses. Greater stability in a different brain network was also revealed. The tests appear to show that people undergo a temporary disintegration of brain networks during a "trip," but re-integration follows soon after.

Psilocybin has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries and became a popular recreational drug beginning in the psychedelic '60s. The researchers warn that people should not attempt to "self-medicate," as the experimental treatment was conducted in tandem with therapy. They also note the small size of the study group and the absence of a control group as cautions before making applications to the general population.

However, write the study authors, "accumulating evidence suggests that psilocybin with accompanying psychological support can be used safely to treat a range of psychiatric conditions, including: end-of-life anxiety and depression, alcohol and tobacco addiction, obsessive compulsive disorder, and most recently from our group, treatment-resistant major depression." They plan to test psilocybin against a major antidepressant in another trial.

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