‘Shrooms have long been celebrated in hippie and music festival cultures. Even their name, “magic mushrooms” implies a mystical quality about the hallucinogen. New research in the mental health field may be tapping into the essence of their magic.
When someone eats ‘shrooms, the human body breaks down psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, into psilocin. Psilocin is a psychedelic substance that enters the brain and binds to a serotonin receptor, 5-HT2A, which then alters our consciousness. Most users describe this as a “trip,” often with a spiritual or mystical feeling about it. There are usually accompanying hallucinations and feelings of transcendence.
Beyond this, we have a very limited scientific understanding of the chemical processes that create a psychedelic experience. However, there is pre-existing research about potential benefits of psilocybin in treating other mental health conditions, like anxiety and addiction. In one study, cancer patients exhibited improvements in their mood and less anxiety for 3 months after their psilocybin dose, and 80% of smokers in another study were able to maintain abstinence from tobacco for 6 months after their dose.
So what can psilocybin do for depression? In the brain of a person who is prone to depression, the default mode network is overactive. This network is thought to be responsible for the constant dwelling and thinking about oneself that can characterize depression. If the dominance of the default mode network can be broken, there is potential for success in psychotherapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness. But, a 2012 study found that psilocybin specifically disrupted communication in the brain’s default mode network, opening up the idea of psychedelic therapy for depression.
The most widely used method of treatment for depression currently is antidepressants, specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These drugs can help some patients, but one in five patients with clinical depression fails to respond to any treatment. Some reports claim that the effectiveness of these medications have fallen, and others claim we really aren’t sure about how effective they are or aren’t. Researchers have been hunting for new methods.
A recent pilot study suggests that psilocybin may have a powerful pharmaceutical potential for these patients with treatment-resistant depression. This study is the first ever clinical trial to use the active chemical compound in ‘shrooms to treat treatment-resistant major depression. Participants received 2 different doses of psilocybin in pill form, 10 mg one session and then 25 mg one week later. During sessions, they relaxed on a bed listening to music and the psychiatrists let patients have their “inner journey” without interruption.
Amazingly, 8 of the 12 participants who took psilocybin showed significant improvement in depression symptoms one week after their 2 treatment sessions, so much so that they met the criteria for remission from depression. All 12 patients showed at least some improvement in their symptoms for up to 3 weeks after their dose. With follow-up studies, if these findings are confirmed, there may be a new method of treatment for depression symptoms that don’t respond to other medications.
The Psychedelic Experience
Previous studies have shown that a mystical mushroom trip can alter a person’s personality—namely making them more “open” and appreciative of new experiences. These findings were extremely unusual, considering some research has shown that our personalities change very little even after first grade.
Dr. Stephen Ross, from NYU’s Psychedelic Research Group, has some theories about the profound impact of the mushroom trip. Psychologically, the memory of a trip, often extremely meaningful, could possibly lift people’s moods for lengths of time. Biologically, psilocin binding to our serotonin receptor may set off a series of unknown chemical reactions that last for maybe months.
Even as recently as February, another study was conducted using a different hallucinogenic—ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis leaf, which has been used in historically in Amazonian healing and spirituality.
Like psilocybin, this psychedelic also binds to the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor. Activating this receptor actually enhances the efficiency of signaling between the brain’s nerve cells. In the ayahuasca study, participants’ brains were scanned and showed increased blood flow in regions associated with mood and emotion regulation. Their depression scores also improved significantly and lasted for 3 weeks after their dose.
What’s This Mean?
This most recent study about psilocybin does have its problems, a major one being that all of the study participants actively sought out the psilocybin trial and, thus, might have had a bias in favor of it working for them. The study was also very small and did not have a control group to compare results with, meaning the accompanying psychotherapy sessions may have had an effect on the participant’s symptoms.
This study is groundbreaking in that it’s one of the first to create a safe place for psilocybin research. But, Phil Cowen, a depression researcher at the University of Oxford, commented that psychedelic experiences are “exquisitely sensitive to individual disposition,” and that a trip can be very scary for some people while it’s life-changing for others. Psilocybin treatment could bring hope to people with depression that don’t respond to traditional medications and therapy, but much more research needs to be done.
Advocates for psychedelic research are proud that, in controlled environments and with monitored doses, studies using psychedelics have remained remarkably safe. There are some side effects, like nausea, confusion, and disorientation, but no patients have reported long-lasting, harmful consequences. Psychedelics are also one substance with no evidence of addictive qualities, and are even still being researched in the treatment of addiction.
Does this mean magic mushrooms are going to become readily available, sold at your local pharmacy or offered to you by your therapist? Not quite. Psilocybin is still an illegal substance in the U.S., and is still very difficult to obtain even for research purposes. Even so, all patients need to be screened thoroughly, properly prepared for the psychedelic experience, and given a safe dose along with psychological support in order to ensure a safe “trip.”
This research shows potential promise in researchers’ efforts to maintain safety measures and protect the study participants, all in pursuit of one greater goal: finding a way to lift people out of chronic, treatment-resistant depression.