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Can magic mushrooms cure depression?

Magic mushrooms are often associated with the hippie movement in the 60s and are not taken seriously. However, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and other psychedelics have shown promising outcomes in the treatment of a range of different psychiatric disorders. 

So, what is a psychedelic experience? Psychedelics allow the unconscious to become conscious: memories, grief, emotion, whatever is being hidden emerges (Watts, TED, 2017). Patients report three main types of experience: firstly visiting past traumas, secondly having insights about their life, negative patterns and how to change them and thirdly an experience of harmony, connection and unity (Watts, TED, 2017). 

A recent clinical trial reported that psilocybin-assisted therapy reduces depressive symptoms for treatment-resistant depression (Carhart-Harris et al., 2017). The participants attended two dosing sessions seven days apart: the first one was a low-dose session with 10 mg to get to know the substance and the second one a full-dose session with 25 mg. The participants were followed for 6 months after treatment. All of them showed some reduction of their depression scores at 1-week post-treatment and improvements persisted up to 6 months after treatment (Carhart-Harris et al., 2017). 

How does psilocybin act on the brain and what are the differences with SSRIs ? Psilocybin is a serotonergic psychedelic which activates an emotion-releasing pathway via 5-HT2AR receptor whilst SSRIs activate 5-HT1A receptor which allows an emotional blunting (Carhart-Harris & Goodwin, 2017): 

Figure 1: Carhart-Harris & Goodwin, 2017.

People with depression have cognitive and emotional biases and psilocybin may be a way to change negative patterns to reduce depressive symptoms. Another study reported that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy improves emotional face recognition for treatment-resistant depression (Stroud et al., 2017). Moreover, the study showed that it improves symptoms of anhedonia (lack of pleasure or interest), which is yet relatively unresponsive to standard antidepressant treatments (Stroud et al., 2017). So, reconnecting with one’s environment and emotions induced by psilocybin could explain those improvements. 

To summarize, psilocybin acts rapidly as we can observe a reduction of depression scores already one week after treatment. Furthermore, its action persists with minimal exposure: indeed, positive effects persisted 6 months after the 25 mg session. These findings are promising. However, all these trials had a limited sample size. Future studies must have larger samples to generalize the results. 

Bibliography :
  • Carhart-Harris, R.L., Bolstridge, M., J.Day, C.M., Rucker, J., Watts, R., Erritzoe, D.E, Kaelen, M., Giribaldi, B., Bloomfield, M., Pilling, S., Rickard, J.A., Forbes, B., Feilding, A., Taylor, D., Curran, H.V., Nutt, D.J. Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: six months follow-up. Psychopharmacolocy, 235, 399-408 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-017-4771-x
  • Carhart-Harris, R., Goodwin, G. The Therapeutic Potential of Psychedelic Drugs: Past, Present, and Future. Neuropsychopharmacol 42, 2105–2113 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2017.84
  • Stroud, J.B., Freeman, T.P., Leech, R., Hindocha, C., Lawn, W., Nutt, D.J., Curran, H.V., Carhart-Harris, R.L. Psilocybin with psychological support improves emotional face recognition in treatment-resistant depression. Psychopharmacology 235, 459–466 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-017-4754-y
  • Watts, R. (2017). Can Magic Mushroom Unlock Depression? Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kfGaVAXeMY
Featured image:
  • Malréchauffé, T., (2020, May 3). Mushrooms. Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/photos/pSTTFrTZ1Dg

Author : Johanna Henry