Is it possible that psilocybin found in “magic” mushrooms could help with depression? It appears so, but not the kind of mushrooms you buy at the market. In participants who were diagnosed with major depressive disorder and received psilocybin, researchers from UC San Francisco and Imperial College London discovered that the mushroom compound improved symptoms more than conventional therapy. The effect was achieved by strengthening brain connections between various regions, according to scientists.
The researchers studied how psilocybin affects the brains of individuals with depression in a study published April 11th in Nature Medicine. To evaluate how psilocybin compares to a placebo and how it performs compared to standard antidepressants, nearly 60 participants received psilocybin in two separate trials that were three weeks apart. Both times, the psilocybin helped substantially decrease depressive symptoms – and did so in ways that traditional antidepressants do not, according to the researchers. The study suggests that psilocybin, given by medical experts, may be a useful therapy for depression.
“For the first time, we’ve discovered that psilocybin works differently from traditional antidepressants – making the brain much more fluid and flexible, and less entrenched in a negative thinking pattern that is associated with sadness,” says David Nutt, DM. “This confirms our initial predictions and suggests psilocybin could be a genuine alternative to antidepressant medications.”
An estimated 21 million people in the United States had at least one episode of clinical depression last year, or about 1 in 8 persons. It is estimated that 5% of adult individuals suffer from depression globally, and researchers are continuously developing treatments to treat the mental illness. The study team looked to “magical” mushrooms since psilocybin and other serotonergic psychedelics act on brain receptors called 5-HT2A, increasing flexibility and connectivity in the brains of those who suffer from depression.
The researchers stated, “The psilocybin antidepressant effect was rapid, continuous, and linked to decreases in fMRI brain network modularity, suggesting that psilocybin’s antidepressant action may rely on a more global increase in brain network integration. After a psilocybin treatment, 5-HT2A receptor-rich functional networks had became more functionally linked and adaptable. After 3 weeks, the antidepressant effect of escitalopram was lower and no changes in the brain network organization were seen,” the researchers added.
Psilocybin and Depression
The participants were divided into two groups during the study. The first had treatment-resistant depression and knowingly ingested psilocybin. A double-blind, randomized trial was conducted where some of the individuals received psilocybin, while others took escitalopram – a prevalent selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant. Researchers then studied brain activity with MRI scans before, during, and after the study period.
The researchers say the psilocybin treatment boosted connections between brain areas that are known to help enhance mental function and reduce depression symptoms while decreasing connections within regions of the brain connected to sadness. The individuals who received psilocybin became less emotionally avoidant, with cognitive functioning improving as a result. The effects remained apparent three weeks after the second psilocybin dose was administered. Most notably, no comparable modifications were observed in the patients who took escitalopram instead of psilocybin.
“We don’t know how long the changes in brain activity observed with psilocybin therapy last, and we need to do more research to understand this,” said Robin Carhart-Harris. “Some patients relapse, and it’s possible that their brains revert to rigid patterns of activity seen in depression after a period.”
The researchers of this study caution that while the findings are encouraging, individuals should not self-medicate with psilocybin, a drug that is still prohibited in most of the United States. The research was conducted under controlled, clinical conditions, and patients were given psychotherapy throughout the study.
For years, scientists have considered that psilocybin and other hallucinogens might help people manage their depression as well as a variety of other mental problems. During this research, the study team sought to build on the strong foundation of hypotheses that involved the brain-altering chemical. The study also addressed how depression is frequently linked with overconnectedness or unidentified parts of the brain.
“We observed a similar result in the brain when individuals were scanned while on a psychedelic in previous research, however here we’re seeing it weeks after treatment for depression, which implies the acute drug impact was pro-longed,” Carhart-Harris added.
The researchers also stated that the participant’s brain activity changes were in line with previous knowledge about the acute action of psychedelics. Despite encouraging outcomes, the researchers said that further studies will be required to verify psilocybin’s beneficial effects’ generalizability.