Psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms, may help people with depression, based on two studies that suggest that the drug could have an enduring effect on patients.
In a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 30 healthy volunteers took psilocybin intravenously and had their brains observed with magnetic resonance imaging scanners. Activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is hyperactive in depression, was consistently lowered, according to the research led by David Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London.
A second study, to be published Jan. 26 in the British Journal of Psychiatry and conducted by the same researchers, found that psilocybin enhanced volunteers’ recollections of positive personal memories, compared with those who took a placebo.
“Our findings support the idea that psilocybin facilitates access to personal memories and emotions,” Carhart-Harris said in a statement. “This effect needs to be investigated further but it suggests that used in combination with psychotherapy, psilocybin might help people recall positive life events and reverse pessimistic mindsets.”
Magic mushrooms, also known as “’shrooms,’’ have been used for centuries in healing ceremonies and were employed extensively in psychotherapy in the 1950s, according to Carhart-Harris. The fungi, favored by former Harvard University psychologist Timothy Leary, who founded the Harvard Psilocybin Project, are typically eaten but can also be dried and smoked or made into a tea.
Psilocybin mushrooms are a schedule I substance in the U.S., which means the government considers them to have a high potential for abuse and no legitimate medical purpose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The findings provide support for further research, and Carhart-Harris plans to follow up with a controlled study of 60 patients with depression that may start by the end of this year, he said today in a briefing in London.
As a treatment option, psilocybin may provide an “enduring benefit” after a single dosage, compared with expensive anti-depressant medications that need to be taken daily and have side effects, Nutt said. No negative effects were observed among the study participants, Carhart-Harris said.
The authors cite a recent study by Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins University of Medicine in Baltimore, which found that depression scores in terminal cancer patients were significantly decreased six months after treatment with psilocybin.
The research at Imperial College London was funded by the Oxford, England-based Beckley Foundation; the Neuropsychoanalysis Foundation in New York; the Santa Cruz, California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies; and the Heffter Research Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico.