Research is being conducted into using psilocybin – a compound found in magic mushrooms – to help people with treatment-resistant depression. This drug is known by many names: shrooms, magic mushrooms, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and the list goes on. The ‘magic’ component of these mushrooms is the psychoactive compound psilocybin.
A psychoactive drug is one that affects the mind and can cause changes in mood, thoughts, awareness and behaviour.
Many people have taken magic mushrooms recreationally, since they grow freely in some areas of the UK, and anecdotal evidence has suggested they can have a positive effect on mental health.
Medical research surrounding magic mushrooms has always been difficult to come by, due to it being considered a class A drug under the Drugs Act since 2005. However, in recent years scientists have been allowed to use a synthetic formulation of psilocybin, created by the mental health company COMPASS Pathways in 2018, in trials to investigate if it can be used as an alternative for those who didn’t see results from traditional anti-depressants.
A waking dream
In the latest trial, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, nearly a third of patients went into remission. The study was a phase 2 double-blind trial, which means neither the patients nor the doctors knew who was receiving which dose. Some 163 adults with treatment-resistant depression received a single 25mg, 10mg, or 1mg dose of psilocybin along with psychological support, which was comprised of a preparation session and two follow-up sessions.
The group that received the 1mg dose were the control group. The results showed that the 25mg dose was the most effective and significantly reduced feelings of depression over the following three-week period, whereas the control group showed no changes.
The experience itself was described as being like a “waking dream” where they experienced realisations about events in their life that might have contributed to their current mental health issues. Dr James Rucker, a consultant psychiatrist, said the drug could have “a direct action on the brain, putting it into a more flexible state and providing a window of opportunity for therapy”.
Advanced trials yield extraordinary results
The effects psilocybin could have on depression are also presented in the 2018 documentary Magic Medicine on Netflix. At Imperial College London, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris conducts a trial, hoping to reach conclusive results about the compound psilocybin, and the possibility for a new way to treat depression.
Three of the volunteers involved in the trial, who have all suffered from treatment-resistant depression for most of their adult lives, share their experiences throughout the documentary, which is directed by Monty Wates. They are interviewed about their lives and the impact depression has had on their quality of life.
Each volunteer begins by taking a smaller first dose, and then a larger second dose, which we know to be 25mg. They are supported throughout the experience by Dr Carhart-Harris, and Ros Watts, the trial psychologist, in a dimly lit room, with calming music playing in the background.
The documentary shows the volunteers experiencing a sometimes painful re-emergence of buried emotions and childhood memories. One participant, Andy, describes seeing his deceased father again in an induced hallucination. Whilst this sounds like it could be horrifying, the volunteers feel a sense of relief afterwards. It is reported that the positive aftereffects of taking psilocybin last approximately three to six months for most participants.
At the moment, the research is inconclusive about whether psilocybin should be introduced as a prescription option for depression. Larger and longer studies are still required to confirm the results of the smaller trials that have currently taken place.
With up to one in five adults suffering depressive symptoms in the UK, should psilocybin be an option for the treatment of depression?