Psilocybin, the active ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’, can ease the symptoms of depression, according to a study carried out by Imperial College London.
All 12 of the patients involved in the pilot project, who had suffered with depression for ‘years or decades’, reported that their depression had improved for at least three weeks after taking the drug, and five of them were free of depression for at least three months.
The participants had, on average, tried five alternative treatments that failed to work. The drug was found to benefit patients who were previously classified as incurable.
The researchers behind the feasibility study, published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, say the results show that psilocybin has ‘significant potential’.
The study was led by Professor David Nutt, the Government’s former chief adviser on drugs, who was sacked in 2009 after saying that ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol.
The participants took the equivalent of five magic mushrooms in synthetic form, and were closely supervised by two psychotherapists during the experiment.
Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, who worked on the study, said: ‘These experiences with psilocybin can be incredibly profound. Sometimes people have what they describe as mystical or spiritual-type experiences — that’s not uncommon. This isn’t a magic cure, but even so the effects at this stage do look promising.’
Side effects reported by the participants included nausea, headaches and confusion. Two people experienced ‘mild paranoia’.
Amanda Feilding, of the Beckley Foundation research centre in Oxford, said: ‘For the first time in many years, people who were at the end of the road with currently available treatments reported decreased anxiety, increased optimism and an ability to enjoy things. This is an unparalleled success.’
The researchers are planning further trials, and Professor Nutt suggested that in the future, if the drug is licensed, people would be able to take it ‘every three or four months in a clinical retreat’.
‘Instead of going to a spa three times a year, you would go to a clinic and have the treatment. It is estimated that 40 per cent of the population get depressed at some point. If even 10 per cent are treatment resistant, then it is going to be hundreds of thousands of people who will be potentially eligible.’
With depression affecting about one in five people at some time in their lives, and 20 per cent of these being classified as having depression resistant to treatment, any potential advances are worth a closer look. Ignoring the ‘magic mushrooms’ eye-catching headline here, this is one such story.
The serotonin receptor agonist psilocybin — which occurs naturally in some mushroom species — was given to a very small number of people with treatment-resistant depression (ie, they had not responded to two different antidepressant drugs) and their symptoms monitored over a three-month period. After this time, five of the 12 patients were depression-free, and two others reported continuing improvement in their symptoms.
The exact mode of action of this class A drug remains unclear, but this trial does at least provide initial support for the safety and efficacy of psilocybin — albeit in a tiny number of patients — and opens an avenue for potentially important research into future depression treatments. Bigger and better trials are now needed, with more rigorous designs, to see if this effect is repeatable over large numbers of patients. In the meantime, don’t be tempted to treat yourself with magic mushrooms.
Research score: 3/5