Study Suggests Psychedelic Mushrooms Might Help Severe Depression

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Photo: PETER DEJONG

A new study could offer hope for people struggling with depression, as well as for researchers trying to investigate controlled substances as possible treatments.

Scientists from Imperial College London recruited 12 volunteers with severe depression for a study published in Lancet Psychiatry. They’d been depressed for an average of 18 years and hadn’t improved after taking at least two antidepressants. Researchers gave them two doses of psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, and found that it kept depressive symptoms at bay for three weeks, while five of the volunteers were depression-free for three months.

But the authors cautioned that people shouldn’t start looking for a dealer. The study demonstrates proof of concept only and it’s a step toward getting funding and approval for more rigorous trials.

This investigation was small and there wasn’t a control group, but still it took years to set up, because psilocybin is considered a class I drug. The researchers had to wait a year for ethical approval and 30 months for to get the drug from a company that had to get a special license. Even if they do a randomized control trial in the future, where half of people take a placebo, it wouldn’t really work since people would definitely know if they weren’t given a psychoactive substance.

Meanwhile, the study participants had their trips in a controlled setting with the researchers present. Everyone was initially given a low dose of psilocybin to make sure they wouldn’t react poorly, then given a higher dose a week later in a specially prepared room with two psychiatrists who were there the whole time to talk them through the experience. A layperson wouldn’t be able to tell how much psilocybin is in mushrooms.

This isn’t the only psychoactive drug doctors are investigating for depression treatment — there’s a trial at the National Institute of Mental Health using club drug ketamine. And some people who suffer from a severe form of migraines called cluster headaches find relief from mushrooms, but that’s yet to be studied.

Lots of people don’t respond to antidepressants. It seems the least that governments could do is make it easier for doctors to study other treatment methods that they find promising.